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Unimprovised: every word and gesture stems from interviews with those affected by dementia. Photo/Supplied

The local play inspired by the lives of dementia sufferers

The Keys are in the Margarine, a play with a message about dementia, returns to the stage, more poignant for the passage of time.

A local play inspired by the lives of dementia sufferers, The Keys are in the Margarine, has returned to the stage.

The work, a powerful form of verbatim theatre in which four actors replicate every word and gesture from interviews done with those living with the illness, caregivers, family members and doctors, is touring again, funded by Brain Research New Zealand.

But its return its tinged with sadness – two of the main characters whose lives helped inspire the work have died.

One was Noleen Chin, the wife of former Dunedin mayor Peter Chin. Noleen showed the first signs of dementia in 2005 and lived with it for more than a decade.

Her husband, whose story was also played out on stage, told the Listener that being part of the play helped the couple to process what they were going through.

“It felt like a signing-off. It was a way of telling our story and helping generate a better public understanding of the disease.’’

Although his wife died two years ago, their story can now live on. “It really does bring back memories of some sad times, but there is also some humour in it,” Chin says. “It’s sad that Noleen is not here to share the rest of our lives together. Our daughter said at the funeral that we were robbed. It’s really important to help the public understand what families like ours go through.’’

Another main character was Nigel Wynn, a former Wellington sharebroker who was diagnosed with dementia at the age of 48. He died last year, before his 60th birthday.

In the play, actors portray some of his experiences based on interviews with him and his wife, Tania, another key character.

“They tell some amazing stories,” says co-writer Susie Lawless, a Wellington GP. “Nigel tells one about going to the gym and trying to find his bag and says, ‘There are 50 bags and they all look the same.’’’

Lawless got involved after Theatreworks actor/director Cindy Diver interviewed her for a 2012 verbatim work, Hush, about domestic violence. “At the time, I was helping a family who were struggling with dementia and I thought this would be a really powerful medium to tell their stories. It’s a totally consuming form of theatre.’’

Some characters who used pseudonyms in the play’s first run have asked for their names to be included in this month’s tour. “Everyone got braver once they saw it. This amazing community sprang up around it,’’ says Lawless.

Diver, who plays five different characters, says although a work like this can be hard going, it ends with a message of hope. “The hope is in the humanity and support of others and accepting the person for where they are now.’’

The Keys are in the Margarine: Twizel Events Centre, October 8; Ashburton Trust Event Centre, October 9; Wellington’s Hannah Playhouse, October 12-13; Upper Hutt’s Expressions Whirinaki, October 15; Whakatane’s Liberty Centre, October 17; Opotiki’s Senior Citizens Hall, October 18; Hamilton’s Gallagher Academy, October 19; Royal Wanganui Opera House, October 20.

This article was first published in the October 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.