BS Johnson (1933-1973) was an experimental writer who has gained attention and success following his early death by suicide. House Mother Normal is a novel set in a nursing home, in which each resident has their own chapter to communicate the events of their day; as some are more eclipsed by dementia than others the writing becomes more fractured, with blank pages and strangely constructed sentences. The house mother herself has the strangest chapter of all, orchestrating the whole piece.
New Perspectives and Tim Crouch have transformed this novel into a digital installation for the Brighton Festival which you can explore either in person or on your screens. Due to the nature of the performance – all the characters speak together to vie for your attention, headphones are advised. Of course some lines are highlighted in the sound mix, but you can follow other paths if you wish.
The nine-strong cast all present their own power as their characters exist in their own levels of senility; memories fracture and collide; their days are structured in a system of abuse and cruelty. The house mother is a particularly horrific character, but these old people are, to some extent, “raging against the dying of the light”, to quote Dylan Thomas, and are far from a docile group who like each other.
The most vocal of the residents are Gloria Ridge (a snippy Cleo Sylvestre), Ron Lamson (a regretful Tyrone Huggins), Charlie Edwards (a pragmatic Pip Donaghy), and Ivy Nicholls (a literate Marsha Millar), and they are easy to follow when they speak. Less communicative are George Hedbury (Tim Barlow) and Rosetta Stanton (Sharon Morgan), who nevertheless catch the eye in their own confused worlds, while Sioned Bowen (Margeret Jackman) and Sarah Lamson (Vivien Bridson) display moments of lucidity.
The book has moments of extreme dark humour, which is captured well in this installation, especially in the Pass the Parcel and entertainment sections. The sense of a nursing home being a place of control and isolation is particularly prescient at the moment as the pandemic has kept these places out of bounds: in House Mother Normal these residents have no relatives to speak of so they are trapped in this routine until death.
Amelda Brown is particularly chilling as the House Mother, who remains unnamed; her only concern being her dog, Ralphie, who is treated far differently to her charges. In Johnson’s world, she is more unstable than the people she professes to manage as “they don’t know what they want”.
I feel that you can appreciate House Mother Normal on two levels: one, as an artistic work in its own right, with modern parallels; two, with some knowledge of the piece on which it is based. I was particularly interested to see that the nine windows are active together, which leads to a sense of confusion on the part of the viewer, but also allows material to be sifted and compared in real time. It keeps you immersed at all times.
You can experience House Mother Normal at the Brighton Festival until 31 May: book here for the online version (the site-specific version is fully booked).
Header image credit: Robert Day
LouReviews received complimentary access to review House Mother Normal.