Haylo Theatre, named after its founders Hayley Riley and Louise Evans (Hayley, Louise – Hay-Lo), is a company based in North West England. Their purpose, to quote their website, is to create “bespoke performances and workshops that initiate inter-generational conversations around difficult subjects, such as the impact of health upon the individuals, families and communities”. If “health” and “difficult subjects” put you off, and it’s understandable if they do, then, strangely, their play Over the Garden Fence is aimed at you more than anyone.
The piece was written by Riley and Evans, who happen to be the sole performers – yet for a two-hander there are plenty of roles. It isn’t a conventional play by any means, but the closest we have to protagonists are Annabelle and Dolly; a young girl and her grandmother, played by Riley and Evans respectively. Dolly, we soon find out, has dementia. In a series of scenes, sketches and vignettes, the audience is taken through the key stages of Dolly’s illness.
The set is simple; a gateleg table in centre stage with two wooden fences on either side. It might sound concise, but anything more elaborate would run the risk of drawing our attention from the acting. The scenes featuring Annabelle and Dolly take place in the centre, as do a few flashbacks. The fences, however, are used for the namesake Over the Garden Fence dialogues.
These dialogues are between the colourful neighbours of Dolly; some know her well, others know of her, and many don’t really know her at all. Our two actors play out a variety of neighbourly gossips, changing from one character to another in quick succession. These segments are hilarious – Riley and Evans have flawless comic timing – but they have a structural purpose too. They break up the show into chronological stages; after each segment, Dolly’s illness has evidently progressed, and this is ingeniously represented in what the neighbours say.
The narrative of Annabelle and Dolly asks us to think about something – what if our memories become more “real” to us than our present experience – so much so that they become our present experience? Dolly insists on bringing a suitcase of what her daughter regards as junk into her nursing home. With each item in the case, we relive a moment of her life – from her girlhood in the thirties to a Christmas not so long ago. We, along with Annabelle, learn the reason for Dolly’s desire to keep these items – items that couldn’t be further from junk – and why they’re more precious than anything else. Without giving too much away, the items unweave Dolly’s life before our eyes – a likeable, funny, and loving woman. These items are her memories, and in her condition, memories are all she has.
With snappy dialogue and a wicked sense of humour, this piece never veers into the territory of sentimental melodrama. It has poignancy, however, but this is sporadic – which makes it all the more effective when it happens, especially juxtaposed with the laugh-out-loud comedy. But what makes this piece so special, and what Haylo Theatre should be most proud of, is its joyousness. Rather than lamenting the effects of dementia, it celebrates a life. The reason you should see it, especially if you’re put off by tricky subjects, is because it takes something that’s usually seen has harrowing, and creates something quite beautiful.