Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Steve Cooper: Paradise Lodge

By | Published on Friday 4 October 2019

A show that won lots of fans up at the old Edinburgh Fringe this summer was ‘Paradise Lodge’, a musical comedy covering what might not seem like the most appropriate subjects for a musical comedy: ageing, dementia, love and loss. Rest assured, however, it works.

To find out more about the show and the team behind it, I spoke to writer and performer Steve Cooper.

CM: Can you start by telling us what format to expect from the show? It’s described as a musical comedy, but does it take a traditional form?
SC: Characters don’t burst into song to tell us more about their character or the story as is tradition but there’s plenty of singing and ukulele playing throughout. Wartime songs have been chosen to underscore and accentuate moments in the present and to bring the joy and unity that comes with communal singing – invoking the blitz spirit to see us through difficult times.

CM: What story does the show tell?
SC: A dysfunctional 1940’s duo are doing a gig in a care home. As the duo disintegrate before our eyes, we meet a couple of care home residents, Ronnie and Vi; charting their stories through a series of flashback scenes with their families, neighbours, carers and doctors. We see how old age and the development of dementia has brought them to this moment in time – just after lunch, in the big lounge of Paradise Lodge care home, watching a 1940’s duo.

CM: What themes does it explore?
SC: We explore what it means to grow old, how our reality can shift, the nature of love and loss. It doesn’t sound like a comedy does it? Trust me, though it doesn’t dodge some hard truths, it’s bloody hilarious.

CM: What made you want to create a show based on these ideas? What inspired you?
SC: When we were caring for my mother in law, Dorothy, I found the whole thing frustrating, upsetting and worthless. Over time, I started coming to terms with it and got down to the hard work of helping Dorothy and my wife, Tracey cope as best we could. I started writing things down to help make some sense of the condition and its effects. After we lost Dorothy, I went back to my notes and the story I wanted to tell began to take shape.

CM: Is it all based on your experiences, or are there fictional elements?
SC: The meat of the show is based on my personal experience. The scenes are all from life, sometimes almost word for word. It was important to me that the play should be authentic and not pull any punches. I did some gigs in care homes around the same time with a partner and, though I have blown up this element somewhat, it is all firmly rooted in truth and reality.

CM: Is there a hope that the show will be helpful or informative for those who might go through similar experiences?
SC: Definitely. People who were in the same boat as us have taken the time to say thank you for putting their story on the stage. They really seem to take ownership and leave with the sense that they are not alone. For those who might go through these issues in the future I hope they get an idea how things might play out and be better prepared when it happens.

CM: What was the creative process? How did you go about putting the show together?
SC: I took my notes and came up with a rough structure based on Shakespeare’s ‘Seven Ages of Man’. As well as telling the stories of Ronnie and Vi’s lives, I mapped out seven stages of dementia, seven stages of the Second World War etc. Then I chose the songs and wrote the dialogue for a first draft. My partner in drama Sophie Osborne then came on board and we started standing it up and workshopping scenes and songs till we had the full play.

CM: You performed the show at the Edinburgh Fringe in the summer. What made you decide to perform the show up there, and how did the run go?
SC: So many people who saw the show in its early days said “you have to take this up to Edinburgh” that we bit the bullet and did it. We wanted the wider world to join in a discussion about dementia and thought it would be a fab place to start. I’m told the run went very well. It’s hard to tell when you are in the middle of it all, flyering, networking, doing care home gigs, performing the show. Feedback from audiences and reviewers was universally positive, and they turned up!

CM: Have you made any changes to the show since then?
SC: In Edinburgh we had to cut the show to fit the time-slot, and you have to stick to it or you might be fined and fall out with the next show up. So, for the Tabard we can let the show breathe again, allow moments between characters and the audience to develop naturally and have the time to see where they go. We cut some songs down too, so much of that is back in where it feels right.

CM: What hopes or plans do you have for the show in the future?
SC: This show is now ‘in our back pocket’ and we can have it up and running in any space in a very short time. We’re in talks about a couple of rural tours in the spring and health-care professionals have asked if they can use it as the basis for workshops, training how to deal with the condition. The subject isn’t going away, so I’ve got the feeling I could be doing this show until I’m in a home myself.

CM: Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
SC: I’ve written another play called ‘Twits, Wits and Bawdy Baskets’, a brand spanking-new Tudor comedy about the rich/poor divide and a woman’s place – it’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’ meets ‘Some Like it Hot’. We did a short tour of it just before Edinburgh. I think it has legs, so watch this space!

‘Paradise Lodge’ is on at Tabard Theatre from 11-24 Oct, see the venue website here for info and to book.


Photo: Tracey Cooper