Cathy and Rob are a couple in their 50s; he is an architect and she a teacher. Their lives, along with their daughter Nicola’s, start to fall apart as Rob experiences the symptoms of early-onset dementia. And so begins the hard-hitting and intense show Descent, which has all the familiarity of a relatively well-known condition but none of the typical plot points you could usually bank on.
Movies or books dealing with this subject matter tend to start off with the diagnosis of a character, then follow the family as the person they love slowly slips away. This show, masterfully written by Linda McLaughlin, does not follow that predictable format. The first half is all about Rob’s denial of his condition; he makes regimented lists to remember all the things he’s started to forget, and Cathy (Wendy Seager) humours him, too scared to face the truth.
This head-on portrayal of reality is especially intense. Paul Cunningham delivers a stellar performance as Rob, going from a high-calibre, hard-working architect to a vacant shell. Alongside Seager is Fiona MacNeil, who deftly portrays Nicola, and her frustrations with her parents who are not facing up to reality.
The plot touches on various themes – the shock of the deteriorating mind, the reality of care homes and services, the struggles of becoming a spouse who's taking on the role of a carer – and still remains fast-paced. This may be a show about dementia, but it opens the floor up for a much broader conversation, for carers, colleagues and family members. And as the story of Cathy and Rob reaches a point from where there is no turning back, all we can do is feel their palpable despair and anguish.
The only minor flaw was a lack of chemistry in the first 15 minutes. The trio felt much more like a family when the scenes included more physical contact, in the way of care or love, or even violence. There was also a lot of noise from outside (the show is in the basement of the newly refurbished Rose Theatre).
But don’t let that deter you from catching Descent, a powerful show with a profound storyline. It's a magnificent portrayal of the struggles of a family in the face of a looming tragedy.