In a time when aged care in Australia is involved in ongoing crisis, it can be challenging to understand the issue beyond statistics, news headlines, and royal commissions. The Fish Bowl, presented at The Mill, seeks to humanise our understanding, and tell the colourful and, at times, joyous stories of people living with dementia.

Adelaide-based writer and performer Matthew Barker draws from real experiences as a care worker. He is joined by actor/deviser Evie Leonard in portraying the colourful, and at times challenging, relationship between carer and cared for. Director and producer Stephanie Daughtry also makes occasional appearances on stage as a quiet facilitator of the work.

We are met at the opening by the clinical image – recognisable in pandemic times – of an aged-care worker in full PPE, including face shield, under stark white light. The reality of “suppression” and “compliance” techniques are portrayed in stark clarity in The Fish Bowl, forcing us to confront the way society has neglected people in most need of constant care. However, this is constantly contrasted with endearing portrayals of characters living with dementia playing sonatas in their mind, climbing imaginary mountains, or having melodramatic arguments with other patients mistaken for ex-lovers.

For Leonard and Barker, frequently switching between narrating and embodying the colourful characters is a challenge to sustain, but both achieve it well and with great empathy. Comic interludes – including the audience being led in song, and a roleplay – are welcomed, but sometimes tread a difficult line between a parody of patronising staff and stark commentary.

The Fish Bowl is at its most insightful and heartfelt when it explores the curious intimacy between the carer and cared for. The most vivid and compelling moment is when a carer (portrayed by Leonard), rather than sedating an elderly posh Englishwoman named Alice (Barker) in order to remove her false teeth, shows her a book of photos and recites her favourite work of Edward Lear.

This show celebrates the rich identities of those in aged care, and the hope for a better approach to caring for society’s most vulnerable. Offering alternatives to coercive techniques, it shows the characters being cared for and listened to.

The challenges of staging are prone to the occasional misadventure, but this text and production has a courageous creative team, great potential for further development, and a valuable purpose.

The Fish Bowl is at The Breakout at The Mill until March 6.

Gianluca Noble is the second recipient of the Helpmann Academy InReview Mentorship. He is working with experienced writers Murray Bramwell (theatre) and Jane Llewellyn (visual arts) to write a series of articles for publication in InReview.

 Read more 2022 Adelaide Fringe stories and reviews here.

 

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.