THERE’S a cosy familiarity as Visitors opens. Perhaps it has to do with the Dales scene that’s projected as a backdrop or the farmhouse kitchen table or, more likely, the charming elderly couple reminiscing about a seaside holiday. Certainly a situation we can all relate to. As this piece progresses it remains familiar, but loses its cosiness…

Barney Norris’ Visitors, sensitively directed by Jamesine Cundell-Walker, at Ilkley Playhouse’s Wildman studio theatre this week, explores that part of life that we’d all rather not think too hard about. An elderly couple is having to come to terms with losing both strength and sense. Arthur, a Dales farmer, struggles to maintain the routines of his younger days whilst desperately wanting also to care for his beloved wife Edie, who knows she is descending into dementia. Throw into this situation a stranger, in the form of a young woman carer, Kate, employed by their son Stephen to help out and there is an interesting quartet of characters: they all want to do what is best for each other but no-one is quite sure what that is.

Jan Thomas, as Edie, visibly shrinks as her dementia progresses. Initially she recounts stories of brides on a beach, her son in his school days and asks her husband probing questions about his hopes and dreams. This characterisation is so powerful and the interplay between her and Stephen Brown, as Arthur, is very touching without being overly sentimental. With their son, Stephen, Arthur’s tacit refusal to engage in a meaningful conversation is both uncomfortable and recognisable – those things that need to be said that are somehow obvious, necessary and impossible.

Stephen (Mark Simister), has been something of a disappointment. He shows little interest in the family farm, has a wife and family who have failed to be sufficient comfort to his parents in their old age and he is their only one. Several times Edie repeats how she would have liked to have been blessed with more children. Simister’s agony is tangible and his performance is deeply affecting. He knows his own shortcomings – and any that he’s forgotten his mother soon reminds him about.

Livy Potter, as Kate, bursts into the scene as a welcome relief from the monotony of the isolated farmhouse. Her tender care of Edie suggests a character who has much affection to offer and who as yet has had little opportunity to give it. The only relationship she’s offered is highly unsuitable.

It is impossible not to be moved by this play. Doubtlessly there is pathos, but overwhelmingly the central loving relationship is a thing of beauty and it is this which makes it not only bearable but incredibly compelling. It plays until Saturday.

by Becky Carter