John Osborne reflects on dementia, music, age and memory in You’re In A Bad Way

John Osborne: storyteller and poet

STORYTELLER, poet and BBC Radio 4 regular John Osborne returns to Pocklington Arts Centre on Thursday to present his beautiful, funny and uplifting new theatre show about music and dementia. 

Last March, he performed a quietly spoken double bill of John Peel’s Shed and Circled In The Radio Times in the bar; intimate, convivial storytelling in an intimate, convivial space.

Now, inspired by seeing a friend’s father face a dementia diagnosis and the feelings of warmth and positivity and unexpected twists and turns the family went through, he has put together You’re In A Bad Way.

“This is the fifth theatre show I’ve made and it’s definitely my favourite,” says Osborne.  “That’s because I never planned to write about something as personal as dementia, and I’d never written about such a big topic before, which I felt was intimidating and other writers would do it.

“But I was faced with this dilemma when my friend’s father was diagnosed with dementia a couple of years ago. It was a really interesting thing to observe, because though it was horrible and terrifying and sad, it was also beautiful and magical with special moments.

“It felt like such a beautiful story that I wanted to tell. Just because you’ve been diagnosed with something, it doesn’t mean it’s the end.” 

Osborne recalls the circumstances behind his friend’s revelation. “My friend and I go to Glastonbury every summer. We started at 21 and we’ve been going for 17 years now and we never miss a year,” he says.

“So, it was one of those sweet things we like to do, but it was at Glastonbury she told me about her father. Glastonbury is kind of where these things do happen, when you’re spending so much time together.

“I was saying I felt I was getting too old for Glastonbury, for putting up tents and the like, and it was then she suddenly told me about her dad’s dementia, and I thought, ‘what’s happening to us?’. But everyone has these stories, don’t they?”

This set in motion You’re In A Bad Way. “I started thinking about my relationships, friendships; growing up and now not being as young as you used to be, but also about having the luxury of growing old, and then my friend’s father dementia diagnosis,” says Osborne. “I also found myself thinking about how music plays an important part in our lives.”

Gradually, music and dementia joined in union as Osborne wrote the show. “Initially, I was looking at music from my own point of view, but the more I researched dementia, sport and music were two things that were so important to dementia patients,” he says.

“Like hearing an old commentary from a cup final their favourite team won. Someone who has been unresponsive to any stimulus can suddenly go back to where they first heard that commentary.

“It’s the same with music, where they can remember the lyrics from years ago, but can’t now remember who anyone is.”

Before he went ahead with You’re In A Bad Way, Osborne sought his friend’s approval for him to talk about her family’s story on stage. “She works in theatre and said she was happy if a theatre show did discuss these things,” he recalls.

The poster artwork for John Osborne’s dementia-and-music show You’re In A Bad Way

When premiering the show at last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe, Osborne spent time at a dementia care centre in the Scottish capital to ensure he was fully informed about the experience of caring for someone with dementia.

“I met these fantastic women at LifeCare Edinburgh, and we talked about what they do and how they wanted to raise awareness of what they do,” says Osborne. “We raised money at the end of every performance to give to LifeCare.

“It was really good to get information and stories from them and to be able to repay them by mentioning LifeCare at each show.”

Osborne says that every time he performs You’re In A Bad Way, he learns new things about dementia. For example, the feeling of isolation when confronted by  loved one falling into the black hole of dementia. “If you’ve got a parent with dementia, it can be very hard to communicate about it with your friends, as your relationship with your family is so specific to you,” he says.

“In the case of my friend, her response was to drop everything to support her father, whereas her sister couldn’t deal with it at all and wasn’t there for him. She ran away from it.

“But whatever your reaction, there are thousands of reasons for why people do what they do in those circumstances.

“That’s why I wanted to do my research and not be out of my comfort zone when people tell me their own stories at the shows. I’ve met people who have stayed and supported; I’ve met people who ran away.”

Looking forward to Thursday’s Pock performance, what tone can the audience expect? “As it’s such a big topic, I’ve tried to make the show funny and life affirming and relatable,” says Osborne. 

“I don’t want it to be sad or serious; I think it’s important for it to be a good story to someone who has no association with dementia, as well as being sensitive to those who live surrounded by the illness.”

Osborne is busy writing his next show for this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe. “After two serious shows, You’re In A Bad Way, and before that, Circled In The Radio Times, which was also about getting older, I thought, ‘I really want to write something fun’,” he says, introducing My Car Plays Tapes.

“I’d had my first car for years, but it broke down. I did my John Peel’s Shed tour in it, and that’s partly why it broke down, when a little Fiesta isn’t meant to do that many miles, with a box of records in the back.

“So, I got the cheapest replacement car possible, with no electric windows, no CD player, but it’s got a tape player. Suddenly I was re-united with the tapes I made when I was 16, when I would have had no reason to listen to them again otherwise.

“That’s set me off writing about being forced to re-visit your past.” Hopefully, the resulting show will make its way to Pocklington post-Edinburgh Fringe.

In the meantime, tickets for Thursday’s 7.30pm performance of You’re In A Bad Way are on sale at £10 on 01759 301547 or at or £12 on the door, with a special price of £9 for a carer of someone with dementia.