In 1998, theatre-maker, performer and director Ursula Martinez made her first theatre show, A Family Outing. It was an autobiographical work in which Martinez brought her parents Arthur and Milagros Lea on stage to chat and share family anecdotes upon a dingy, patterned sofa on the Pit stage of the Barbican. This production, 20 Years On, recreates this performance in the same space but with two major differences – Arthur has passed away and Milagros is now in the early stages of dementia.
Part of the Barbican’s 2019 year-long arts and learning seasons Life Rewired, which explores what it means to be human when technology is changing everything, the new show is a poignant exploration of identity and aging. When Martinez first comes onto the stage and introduces herself to the audience, her familiarity and comfort with the space is evident. She is affable, likeable, and builds an instant rapport with the audience through her natural humour and charm.
Through video footage of the original show projected on the back wall, a reference point is provided for those of us – a large proportion of the audience, I would argue – who didn’t see the original piece. Martinez lightheartedly acknowledges the passing of time in her assertion that twenty years on, she feels “basically the same”. The projection plays throughout, and the live action begins to fall seamlessly in sync with that of the footage behind.
The parallel between the two elements is meaningful; the contrast between the real-life action and the technology, the similarities in costumes, and the observable differences in the ages of Martinez and her mother. Most notable though, was how the footage made the absence of Arthur on the sofa even more stark.
Milagros Lea, originally from Spain and emigrated to England in the early sixties, is the real star of the show. At age 83, she is lively and confident on stage, with impeccable comic timing. Intelligent direction by Mark Whitelaw – who also directed the original – gently brings out the mother-daughter dynamic between the two. In one moment, the pair reminisce about mum’s dance skills, and she is left alone on stage in spotlight dancing to the empowering sounds of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’. Contrasted against the original footage of this moment, the ageing process is highlighted but celebrated.
Later, Martinez leaves the stage in search of power of attorney papers for her mother to sign, an act which would give consent to Martinez and her sister Monica to take control of their mother’s life when it becomes necessary. Lea is left alone on the sofa, looking particularly vulnerable and lost. We are reminded of what’s at stake in this real family relationship.
A Family Outing – 20 Years On sensitively navigates the difficulties of a changing mother-daughter relationship affected by a cruel disease. I had reservations about the ethics of bringing a parent battling with dementia on stage to perform, but what we are shown is quite the opposite: this piece is an opportunity to bond, spend time together, and share something significant and powerful.
A Family Outing – 20 Years On is playing until 30 March. For more information and tickets, see The Barbican website.