We’re in a residential care home in Australia. The thirty patients have various forms of dementia. The Fish Bowl is an account of their experiences, of the challenges inherent in looking after people in the advanced stages of dementia, and the ways in which considered care can respect and preserve a patient’s humanity.
That sounds pretty bleak but this is an inventive, funny, absorbing production. The two performers (with a guest appearance from director and co-creator Steph Daughtry) are alternately patients, care workers, a care home visitor and a superbly condescending care home manager (Heidi Steel). They dart around the Anatomy Theatre at Summerhall, sitting alongside us, walking behind us, racing up and down the stairs, fabulously evoking the chaos of living amongst 30 individuals uninterested in sticking to the prescribed routine (this occasionally made audibility an issue given Steel’s lighter voice in that echoey space but this wasn’t a huge problem). The live action is intercut with interviews with people including care workers and a neurologist, enabling creator and performer Matthew Barker to cram a huge amount into this hour long show.
Barker and Steel beautifully evoke the confusion and horrible solitude of dementia but the artistry of the writing lies in the extent to which we’re also given permission to laugh at the absurd, apparently illogical behaviours that can manifest themselves when, in a chillingly brilliant analogy, your brain’s been put through a wood chipper. Barker recognises the careless attempts by care home workers to contain, restrain and medicate but the hope in this piece lies in the depiction of the compassion and empathy that can transform the experience of a cross and confused patient.
The Fish Bowl is based on Barker’s time working in a care home in Adelaide and experiencing first hand the difference that effective communication can make. The play ends with a rallying cry to government and society to step peering in from the outside, prescribing (cheap and) easy solutions but to explore and understand the role for earlier diagnosis and the right care and support. Let’s hope the right people are listening.
The Fish Bowl runs until Sun 27 Aug 2023 at Summerhall – Anatomy Lecture Theatre at 10:25