Moments That Changed Our World: stories from an older generation

“You’re still living, you’re not dying, you’re living…” This uplifting sentiment was the introduction to ‘Moments That Changed Our World’: a piece of theatre detailing the lives and ‘mo ments’ of the Royal Exchange’s Elder’s Company. Directed by Andrew Barry, and performed by a cast consisting of eleven members all over 60 years of age, the show was an optimistic and uplifting journey through the varied lives of the company members. Through the use of storytelling, the audience were guided through 20th century Britain riding on the very personal, genuine, and, at times, achingly sad words of the actors.

As I walked into the studio space where the company would tell their stories, I was overwhelmed by a sense of comfort and welcome. Though the stage space was sparsely decorated, the few props on the stage had a decidedly dated, yet comforting feel, with a simple, cushioned armchair creating a focal point. Hanging from the rafters were Edison bulbs that provided a nostalgic tungsten glow that left me feeling as though I was hearing a story told in the comfort of my own living room. Before the show began, the cast were let loose around the space; chatting to anyone and everyone, creating the most beautiful sense of community. Having the seating on either side of the performance space made the audience feel all the more included in the character’s lives and their stories; bringing this group of people together to celebrate life, its struggles, and its triumphs.

This togetherness was continued throughout the dizzyingly heart-warming piece. The actors showed us a veritable sense of themselves; who they are, who they’re trying to be, and most importantly, who they were. The intimacy of the space created a show that was less about spectacle, even though the show was scattered with impressive scenes of physicality and movement. This was a show more about the root of the piece; telling stories. As an audience member, I felt as though the actors were talking to me; inviting me into their personal experiences and telling me their deepest secrets. Though I was surrounded by others, I felt engaged by the actor’s truthful and open nature, as I’m sure the rest of the audience did too.

The stories were fragmented as we jumped from Kenneth’s 1978 to Brenda’s 2005 and the action was broken by the impressive, yet simplistic, physical scenes throughout. The company moved as one to show us their school dances, ban the bomb protests, and sometimes simply to show a sense of closeness as the cast embraced and held one and other. The movement was often simple. Having said this, I could not review this show without mentioning the spectacular Dirty Dancing-esque lift partway through. I’m sure there was less air in the room as the entire audience held a collective breath until the actor was safely grounded. I found the physical elements lent a youthful and energetic tone to the otherwise nostalgic feel, whilst creating a real sense of being alive: “Living, not dying…”

Another striking element was the use of technology in the piece. The actors got to grips with the equipment and seemed to have no trouble at all using the hand held projector and iPad to illustrate moments, eliminating the stereotypically fraught relationship the older generation often have with tech. The stage space was book-ended with copious lengths of string hanging from the ceiling, creating two screens onto which pictures and videos were projected. These screens offered us historical snapshots from their school days, recorded FaceTime calls to children, and letters from Dame Judi Dench. They really were something to keep a keen eye on, lest you miss any of these genuine snippets of a life lived to the full.

Despite the over-arching positivity and optimism of the production, intermingled were the moments that, although life changing, were more melancholy and challenging. We followed Graham as he battled the social and legal constraints of being gay during his youth, and Sheila who fought vehemently for women’s rights throughout her life despite being belittled and demeaned for her struggles. I believe the aim of the piece was to detail the complex and fascinating lives these elderly people have led, a life that is often overlooked when it comes to modern day lives of the older generations. Their never-ending human spirit and compassion moved me, and as the piece ended with promises they made towards their tomorrow- “Tomorrow I will go on an extra long dog walk!”- I felt empowered to make the most of my days, and perhaps end up leading a life even half as compelling as theirs.

Moments That Changed Our World: a production by Andrew Barry and the Elders Company . Shown at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, from 22nd-25th February.