'Finding Joy' – Vamos Theatre | London International Mime Festival
A powerful and moving mime show from full mask specialists Vamos Theatre, ‘Finding Joy’ focuses on the relationship between Joy, who is struggling with dementia, and her rebellious grandson, Danny. The generation gap is wide. She moves gingerly about her home, clutching her handbag tightly; he hangs around the streets with his friends, listening to jungle music. But the play uses their close relationship to look beyond Joy’s memory loss, finding her life and personality instead.
Masks have been especially made for this production by Kent-based mask and puppetry specialists Strangeface and their signature style has been incorporated into each character’s face. Large, tired looking eyes, often ringed with dark circles, pouting mouths and huge noses are just some of the exaggerated features used. Joy herself has a sleepy, kindly look about her.
If you are new to mask theatre, there is something uncanny about Strangeface’s creations when you first see them onstage and it does take a few moments to adjust to the idea of theatre without real faces. That said, it is a real testament to Vamos' skill that, despite having no dialogue, ‘Finding Joy’ portrays the universal themes of love and family perfectly, without being either overly soppy or dark.
It is pleasantly surprising that, despite their cartoon-like appearance, the masks are extremely convincing, particularly when combined with engaging character movement and gestures, courtesy of writer and director Rachael Savage. The soundtrack is a wonderful, almost constant accompaniment. Composer Janie Armour has created quirky pieces with live musicians, where ukulele, trombone and accordion feature. And designer Carl Davies has created a multi-functioning set based around old-fashioned kitchen cupboards, which fold out to become a bed and later, during a flashback to Joy’s childhood, the entrance to a bomb shelter.
With different masks representing Joy at key periods of her life, the audience gains an insight into the real person behind the frail old lady we initially see. The young Joy’s mask, fixed in a distressed-looking expression, represents a frightened child during wartime while later, as a young lady in a vintage-style dress, we see Joy shyly flirting with her future husband for the first time.
The talented but small cast are impressive in doubling up on roles. A petite female cast member is totally believable as a scrawny teenage boy in an Adidas tracksuit, while a male actor plays a jaded female nurse, his hairy arms and legs the only things to give the game away.
With the importance of family as a major theme, ‘Finding Joy’ succeeds as a light-hearted, feel-good comedy but the play also explores some of the more depressing aspects of ageing in modern Britain. During a hospital scene, a doctor treats Joy, his patient, as if she is almost invisible, hinting at how the elderly can be stripped of their humanity and autonomy as frailty and memory loss take over.