The geriatrics’ Christmas panto

My friend works at an ,old people’s home. She is responsible for organising activities for the residents. I was chatting to her at the start of December and she was musing about what activities she could do over the Christmas period. Later in the conversation, she was telling me about some of her residents who had senile dementia. “Some of them pretend to be different characters” she told me. “there’s one who thinks she’s a princess, and another one keeps going on about how he’s going to get out of this place one day and travel to London to make his fortune.”

“Sounds like you should do a pantomime with them” I responded. “You’ve already got a princess and a Dick Whittington. You don’t happen to have anyone who believes they’re an Arabian prince, or a wicked witch, or a man who likes to dress up as a woman do you? Old people shrink, so you’d probably have enough people to play dwarves if you decided to do Snow White”. I laughed loud and hard at my hilarious quip. Sadly she didn’t join in with the laughing. I can’t think why because what I said was evidently hilarious and I’m sure you’re all engulfed by hysterical laughter right now.
take a few deep breaths and then join
me in the next paragraph.

Rather than laughing hysterically, like any normal person would, she replied by enthusiastically declaring, “what a great idea. I’ll do a pantomime with them! We’ll invite their children, their sons and daughters and family along to watch them!”.

“But some of them can’t even remember their own names” I reasoned. “Half of them need to be ferried to the toilet every ten minutes. You can’t have sleeping beauty getting out of bed every ten minutes to go to the toilet. It wouldn’t be very believable would it? unless you modified the script so that the wicked witch’s curse had an unusual caveat whereby sleeping Beauty would be allowed to periodically wake from her hundred year long deep sleep to go to the bathroom. But that would probably inhibit the dramatic tension somewhat”

“Ah yes, good point” she said. “So it would have to be something other than sleeping beauty then”. I don’t think she quite got my point. Surely a Christmas pantomime starring a cast of incontinent people with Senile Dementia would be a total disaster. It wouldn’t work at all. It would be chaos. But it would be hilarious. I know it’s not really the done thing to laugh at incontinent people with Senile Dementia, but come on, it’s Christmas.

“Yes, it’s a great idea” I said.

“You think?” she asked.

“Yes, you should definitely get a load of incontinent old people with senile dementia to act in a pantomime. It would be such a laugh. For them, I mean. Not for me. For them. They’ll have such a laugh”.

“Yes, they would” she responded cheerily.

“In fact, I could come along on the day to offer support if you like? I could be one of the audience members. Some of them won’t have sons or daughters to watch them. I could fill out the audience a bit, be a surrogate family member.”

“Oh, that’s really sweet of you” she replied. I can’t believe she fell for that.

So I had managed to wangle my way into an old people’s home to watch a load of old incontinent people with Senile Dementia acting in a pantomime. What a great way to start Christmas.

A week or so later I got a call from my friend. She was worrying that the pantomime idea might not have been as good as she had first thought. The old people kept forgetting their lines, reading each other’s lines and falling asleep during important scenes. “Maybe I should forget the idea” she said.

What? This couldn’t happen. Of course it was a crazy idea, of course it wasn’t going to work. But that’s the point. It would be hilarious. She couldn’t quit now, I’d been looking forward to the old incontinent people with Senile Dementia all week. She can’t go and ruin Christmas for me. I must reason with her.
“don’t be silly, it’ll be fine” I said. “you’ve still got another week to rehearse, plus, it’s not like the audience are coming to
see an award winning performance; its just something nice for their families”.

“Yes, you’re right” she replied. “Thank you, you’re so sweet”. Ha, fooled her again.

When I left University I was doing occasional Freelance radio work but it wasn’t really getting me much money, so I played music and sang in a few old people’s homes which paid me even less money. I know I have made light of Senile Dementia and age related illness in this blog post, but I of course understand that this is a very serious, debilitating condition that is very sad to witness. I witnessed it in many people during my time performing in the homes; and that was just the staff, hahaha. Some people would act like different characters every single week and they would tell me completely made-up stories about their lives. They would tell me about things that they had done in the outside world earlier that day even though in reality they hadn’t left the home. I got very friendly with a lovely old lady (not like that you perverted animals. She wasn’t my type of lovely old lady). We used to chat every week. I used to look forward to our conversations. In spite of her mental condition, it was evident that in her prime she would have been a very intelligent and independent woman. She was very kind and was very interested in hearing about my life. But one week she took a complete disliking to me for seemingly no apparent reason. Perhaps she was upset that she wasn’t my type of lovely old lady. The fact was that I had done nothing to warrant her disliking me. The week before she’d told me I was a lovely young man (probably the exact type of lovely young man she liked. Awkward) and gave me a kiss on the cheek. The next week I went over to say hi and have a chat, and she told me to piss off and slapped me in the face. Actually I did find the slap rather arousing so perhaps she just knew what she needed to do to get me interested. I came back to the home the next week, and she was back to her usual sweet self again. She seemed to have remembered nothing of last week’s outburst, and so I said nothing of it and we chatted about the war over a cup of tea.

It is of course very sad to think that these people were once children, teenagers and young adults, falling in and out of love, going to work, raising children and grand children and living independent lives; and now they are dependant on carers and often can’t remember their own identity and family.
But despite my sadness about all that, I had some really fun experiences and there were some really funny moments. One week I had been informed by a member of staff that there was to be a test of the
fire alarm system. This wouldn’t necessitate a need for any of the residents to leave the building and I was told to just keep playing. During a rendition of We’ll Meet Again the alarm went off. I continued playing and singing as instructed. One woman started to shout “it’s the Germans. The Germans are bombing!” and dived for cover under a table. A few of the other residents joined her. A man started to do an impression of an air raid siren. accompanying the sound of the fire alarm. A few more people shouted and scrambled for cover. I stopped playing, a bit concerned. “Keep playing” shouted one of the women, “keep singing, it takes our minds off the bombing”. There didn’t seem to be any staff around to offer assistance in this matter and I knew it was fruitless trying to explain that it wasn’t the war, so I started to play and sing again and everyone joined in from under the table. I tell you, that was true wartime spirit.
Eventually the alarm stopped, as did the man making the air raid siren noises, and everyone got up from under the table and sat back down, breathing sighs of relief.

“Can you play the Lambeth Walk love?” asked one of the women, and normality was resumed.

So, now that I’ve hopefully assured you that I’m not a complete bastard who is totally insensitive about people with senile dementia, perhaps I can get back to the task at hand, which is taking the piss out of old people with senile dementia. Excellent.

I am glad to report that the incontinent old people with senile dementia did not disappoint. It was brilliant. They forgot their lines, got into arguments with each other, got very confused, and the play was split into about 20 parts due to the actors’ bladder issues.

The pantomime was Cinderella. All the cast comprised the residents of the home apart from the prince who was played by the home’s cook.

It was odd from the very start. It commenced with some opening music which was a version of Rihanna’s umbrella, only the word “umbrella” was replaced with the word “Cinderella”. This is actually a commercially available version of the song that Rihana has released; it wasn’t a specially commissioned piece just for this pantomime. “I can be your Cinderella, ella, ella, ay, ay, ay” sang Rihana and all the old folks joined in
too. Unfortunately the music faded out before the chorus ended which is a shame because I was hoping one of the old men would have joined in with Jay-Z’s rap. I was looking forward to some
geriatric hip-hop (or geriatric hop as it is actually called because the hip has been replaced, hahaha). Anyway, the music faded, and then there was quiet. Followed by some more quiet. Cinderella had obviously found the Rihanna song to be particularly soporific because she’d fallen asleep. There were a few murmurs from the staff and residents as they realised the situation, and then one of the ladies, playing an ugly sister, nudged Cinderella awake.

“Wake up you silly cow” cried the ugly sister, which apparently wasn’t part of the script. “Wake up and do the house work” she shouted. A pretty good adlib I thought. Cinderella woke from her slumber – perhaps sleeping beauty would have been a better choice after all – and declared that she needed the toilet. The ugly sister continued to improvise brilliantly, remonstrated with Cinderella, but Cinderella was insistent that she was escorted to the toilet, leaving the audience with an unexpected cliff-hanger only one minute into the proceedings.

There was some quiet, awkward murmurs of conversation from the audience and then after a few minutes Cinderella returned.

“where’ve you been” shrieked the ugly sister at Cinderella.
“I’ve been to the toilet” replied Cinderella.

“Well get on with the house work” demanded the ugly sister. The ugly sister was doing an excellent job of keeping the story going, but Cinderella was not playing ball (haha, I’m so funny, you see what I did? Ball). She had seemingly forgotten that she was in fact playing a role in a pantomime.

“I’m not the cleaner” she snapped back at the ugly sister, “that’s Jody’s job”. She pointed at Jody, the home’s cleaner, who was suddenly and unexpectedly brought into the performance.

The ugly sister gallantly continued while a member of staff helpfully handed Cinderella her script and pointed to her next line.

“No” retorted the ugly sister, “you are the cleaner, and you will have this house cleaned from top to bottom”, there was a pause, and then she added, “by the time I come back from the toilet”.

And so the second interlude commenced and the audience resumed their conversations while the ugly sister was escorted by a member of staff to the bathroom.

The pantomime recommenced and for a time it went fairly smoothly. But then, in part 13, things took an unexpected turn. Cinderella seemed to be having a wale of a time at the Ball. She was dancing with the Prince, holding him very close and wearing a very broad smile. She was really starting to get into the play; a little too much as it turned out. The prince declared his love for Cinderella and asked her to kiss him. Cinderella didn’t need asking twice. She flung her arms around the prince and began to give him a very passionate snog. At first the audience laughed, assuming that it was all planned to happen like this, but the Prince’s horrified expression soon alerted them to the fact that it was very much a moment of enthusiastic improvisation on the part of Cinderella.

“It was meant to just be a peck on the cheek” my friend told me later. but this was much more than just a peck on the cheek. The prince was certainly getting more than he’d bargained for. The other old women were starting to get more and more excited by the unfolding scene and they encouraged Cinderella ever onwards. Even the ugly sisters forgot their loathing of their stepsister and joined in the chants of support. The prince could do nothing. He could hardly use force against a frail old woman, and so he had no choice but to grin and bare it. She eventually broke off. The prince took a few hasty steps back just in case she had plans to resume the kiss.
But Cinderella had moved on from the kiss and had her mind set on other important matters. “I need the toilet” she declared and was once again escorted to the bathroom while the Prince raided the mulled wine.

My friend was a bit concerned that Cinderella may want to take things from where they’d left off once she returned from the toilet, and so she hastily made an alteration to the scene. She announced to the audience that Cinderella had made a dash to the toilet on the stroke of midnight and was unable to return to the ball as the magic spell would have worn off. She instructed the actors to start the performance from the slipper scene.

The prince did his monologue about how much he loved the lady at the ball and how he wished he knew who she was so that he could kiss her lips again and be with her forever. There were a few titters from the old women
who were evidently up for some more action between Cinderella and the prince. The prince then produced the slipper from his pocket. Cinderella rose to her feet and indignantly declared
“That’s my slipper!” somewhat ruining the dramatic tension created by the prince’s monologue which intimated that if only he could discover the owner of the slipper then he would know the identity of his true love. The prince pretended not to hear Cinderella’s comment, but Cinderella would not be ignored. “That’s my slipper” she shouted. “I want it, my foot is getting cold!” A member of staff went to Cinderella and tried to explain that she would have her slipper back shortly but that she would have to wait a bit until the moment of the pantomime came where she could try on the slipper, then the prince would fall in love with her and she could marry him. This seemed to placate Cinderella, who I think was tempered by the notion that she might get to snog the prince again.

Eventually, once the ugly sisters had tried to force their feet into the slipper to no avail, Cinderella was reunited with her item of footwear and the prince, very hesitantly and nervously announced that he and Cinderella were to be wed. The audience applauded. But there was to be no wedding ceremony. My friend decided that we’d all had enough fun for one Christmas pantomime, and chose to skip the wedding scene entirely in fear of a repeat of earlier events. Rihanna sang out the pantomime, the audience stood and applauded the actors and the cast sang the “ella ella ays” and all of them looked very pleased with themselves, apart from Cinderella who looked a bit crestfallen.

“That was a disaster” my friend said afterwards as she downed another glass of wine.

“Oh no it wasn’t” I said, and I laughed loud and hard because I’d just done a hilarious pantomime pun. I can’t think why no one else seems to have come up with that joke before. “everyone loved it” I replied “and had a great time”, which was true. Everyone had loved it. We’d all enjoyed the whole weird
episode. Despite the fact that the surrealism was because of the effects of age related illness, no one in the audience seemed sad. The residents’ family members were able to laugh and enjoy the whole crazy experience. All the actors had had a great time. The only person who hadn’t enjoyed himself was the poor Prince, who incidentally is no longer working at the home. Coincidence?

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