Family play about facing aging, crossed with a nightmarish satire.

A family play about facing up to aging, crossed with a nightmarish satire of the none-too-distant future? Playwright Tamsin Oglesby’s National Theater debut, “Really Old, Like Forty-Five,” is certainly ambitious. But although the contrasting components of her dementia dystopia make sense thematically, they fail to cohere dramatically.

Three generations of a family are struggling with the fact that highly active and opinionated grandmother Lyn (Judy Parfitt) is showing signs of encroaching Alzheimer’s Disease. Add to that their confused (and confusing) embrace of a government initiative whereby the elderly are being encouraged to “adopt” orphaned grandchildren.

The potentially involving scenes of growing worry and dislocation are intercut with secret discussions in a government department. These center on radical solutions to the problems faced by a country where 38% of the population is over the age of 60.

Compassionate naturalism meets sci-fi horror head-on when Lyn and her sister (touchingly optimistic Marcia Warren) are admitted to the Ark. This purports to be a care-facility for the elderly but is really a test center for radical treatments that lower costs to society by quietly killing off patients.

In one of the play’s many pre-echoes, the latter scenario is a government twist on the private-medicine book and movie, “Coma.” But where Michael Crichton pursued his agenda by having audiences engage with a central character trying to solve a mystery, Oglesby shoots herself in the foot by revealing everything from the start.

Her over-explanatory scenes set out the topical agenda via gloriously exasperated Paul Ritter’s superb comic turn as Monroe, the increasingly rattled government spokesperson. However, presentation of all the information removes tension, leaving audiences nothing to do but witness the consequences being played out.

Oglesby eschews the thriller format to focus on the way her characters deal with the complex family situation. But that focus is too split. Despite the best efforts of director Anna Mackmin’s cast, who wring their roles for emotion, too many characters remain underwritten and limp.

It’s ironic that the most vivid impression is made by Michela Meazza as a “Stepford Wives”-style robot developed to administer sympathy. Inventively choreographed by Scarlett Mackmin, her exquisitely subtle performance supplies what has been missing elsewhere: subtext.

Lez Brotherston’s drab sets for the family scenes not only lack defining detail to flesh out characters’ lives, they’re on a cumbersomely slow revolve that further drains the already episodic action of momentum. Placing the government plotting scenes on a raised area above the main action amplifies the effect of politicians playing with people like pawns. However, the separation also emphasizes the fault-line of this too schematic play.

Really Old, Like Forty-Five

National Theater/Cottesloe, London; 289 seats; £32 $50 top

Production

A National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Tamsin Oglesby. Directed by Anna Mackmin.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Lez Brotherston; lighting, Mark Henderson; original music, Ringham Brothers; sound, Christopher Shutt; movement, Scarlett Mackmin; video, Mark Grimmer, Lysander Ashton; production stage manager, Alison Rankin. Opened, Feb. 3, 2010. Reviewed Feb. 4. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Lyn - Judy Parfitt Alice - Marcia Warren Robbie - Gawn Grainger Cathy - Amelia Bullmore Monroe - Paul Ritter Millie - Lucy May Barker Dylan - Thomas Jordan Mimi - Michela Meazza Mike - Paul Bazeley Amanda - Tanya Franks
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