Saturday, June 15

Deborah by Maud Dromgoole – The Living Record Festival

Deborah is an immersive audio play that brings you face to face with the anxieties and demons of a lonely, aging mind. Written by Maud Dromgoole and directed by Bethany Pitts, this 30-minute piece takes you through an extraordinary day in the ordinary life of its titular character who finds herself isolated, confused and disoriented after an unexplainable, almost supernatural transformation.

This is the story of Deborah, an elderly woman living alone in a house with limited human contact. She spends her days watching old videos of Art Attack, an arts and craft TV program suited more for kids than seniors, and tries to keep herself busy with some self-care rituals. She has a grandson whose selfies on her smartphone serve as a welcome distraction from the daily humdrum and is in touch with a daughter-in-law whose occasional check-in calls do more harm than good. She has been living alone for over a year now and things are starting to get a little rough – everyday activities feel absurd and pointless, there is little to be excited by. However, there seems to be something strange happening to her today. Something that starts out as a seed of a thought in her head finds its way to her limbs that soon become paralyzed and finally, takes over her entire body until there’s nothing left but a just few primal needs – water, food and survival. That and a fear of dying alone. This physical and mental transformation consumes her completely – all she can do now is wait and pray that someone knocks on the door and saves her. Perhaps, even that might be too late given the situation. It’s questions and ramblings like these by Deborah’s tired, stretched mind that gives the listener a glimpse into their life and the strange event they are witnessing.

An original script, the text is sharp and fast-paced, traversing a wide variety of topics and conversations without necessarily making you feel like such. Maud Dromgoole paints a very vivid picture of those who live or prefer to live a solitary lifestyle, delicately balancing their longing (and disdain) for social interaction, underscored by the trivialities of such endeavours. The listener gets to know Deborah from the outside in – through the relationships she shares with her family, her daily routines and the artifacts (read: cutlery) that surround her everyday life – which allows us to appreciate the articulation of her fears and insecurities even more since we’re able to see their consequences manifest in real-time. The writing captures the dynamic nature and tactility of the human mind beautifully when it’s faced with a situation it has never encountered before – scurrying to respond when it simply doesn’t know what to do.

The sound design by Nicola Chang throws a lot at you – from subdued ambient sounds that hint at Deborah’s physical space to subtle shifts in a rhythm that give us a glance into the character’s mental state – and while it succeeds in stimulating the listener’s aural imagination, I would have enjoyed more moments of silence, particularly in the parts where the character’s grasp on reality is slowly slipping away. What’s commendable is the deft mixing of the sound layers with Clare Perkin’s highly precise yet varied vocal performance that carefully maps Deborah’s sheer scale of emotions – from boredom about her mundane day mixed with deep-seated restlessness to an intense yearning for her grandson combined with equal contempt for her daughter-in-law – and this is what makes the performance an engaging listening experience. Bethany Pitts’ compositional approach ensures that the form doesn’t overpower the text, the latter firmly being in the driver’s seat and guiding the listening experience. 

To summarize, this is a gritting piece about the strange thoughts that enter her head when we’re alone and where those thoughts may take us. While many of us continue to remain isolated at homes, this performance is a stark reminder that even there, we may not be completely shielded from the fears that cripple us from within.

You can hear Deborah on The Living Record Festival’s website

Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer

Reviewed: 14th February 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★