Peter Scott-Presland writes about his autobiographical play, A Pot of Tea for Two.
My mother lived (and died) with a disease called Lewy Body Syndrome. It comes in many forms, but basically it’s a cross between Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. It went undiagnosed for many years, as she kept herself together in order to care for my Dad, who died in 2002 following a fall. He retained his marbles to the end. His last words were, “I could murder a sherry”.
But my poor Mum pretty much collapsed following his death; a combination of shock, grief, and relief at dropping the pretence.
She went into Meadowcroft, the local care home for which she had been a voluntary fundraiser, for five happy years, going downhill surrounded by love. She was a very lovable woman.
I visited her in Thame each weekend and watched her drift gently out to sea to who knows where. She had good days and bad days. The crunch moment for me came when we were talking about the sandwiches.
She was always convinced that a large number of people were about to arrive for tea and fretted whether there would be enough food. It was easy to play along with, so I asked her whether she’d like to have some scones as well as sarnies. She paused to consider this seriously.
“Well, I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll have to ask Eric (that’s my birth name) when he gets here.” A shocking chasm opened up. Who did she think she had been talking to for the last hour? There are few moments so gut-wrenching as when you realise your mother doesn’t recognise you.
For months after, memories of my mother would pop unbidden into my mind; vivid, almost hallucinatory memories. It was not as if it had always been an easy relationship. When I came out to my father, at Christmas 1971 his reaction was twofold.
First, “I don’t want you in this house, you’d better go.” Not easy at midnight on Christmas morning in a small country town, and a dozen relatives descending for Christmas dinner. Second, “Whatever you do, don’t tell your mother, it would kill her.” So, all that honesty and clearing the air brought us back to square one.
I left the day after Boxing Day and stayed away. I kept getting letters from Mum, first asking when I was coming to visit again, and later asking what was wrong. If you can mumble in a letter, I mumbled. After about eighth months we had a clandestine (for her) meeting in a car park in Oxford, and it all came out.
Contrary to Dad’s belief, it did not kill her. As mothers do, she’d always known. I don’t know what she said when she got home, but then it was a letter from Dad, when are you coming to see us?
They weren’t exactly over it, but they were on the way. It took them ten years to even mention the H-word, another ten to ask shyly if there was “anybody I wanted to bring home” and to indicate they’d be welcome. Sleeping arrangements were never discussed. It was the kind of family where nothing was discussed, not money, not politics, not God, so gayness was merely the last of a long line of taboos.
My mother had had talents which she didn’t use. She used to write witty little verses for magazine competitions, and sometimes won. She was lively, outgoing, sociable and generous. My father, in the words of the times, ‘Kept Himself to Himself’.
His exceptions were the Bowls Club and the Bridge Club, where he berated my mother for her terrible bidding. From this potpourri of memories, or maybe imagined memories, came A Pot of Tea for Two, an attempt to get into the mind of the person who was waiting to ask Eric when he got there.
Eileen is the name of the protagonist. She is, first and foremost, a stonking great part for an actress in her 50s or 60s. There is a great shortage of such parts unless you happen to have a Damehood. When I wrote it, there were few such parts and fine performers were wilting on the vine.
The script did the rounds of Kika Markham, who liked it, and a few radio actresses who wanted script changes. At that time, I wasn’t humble and refused to consider them. On the unpaid fringe I couldn’t find anyone who was up to it.
Up until now, that is, because I think I have found Eileen in the person of actor, writer and director Catherine Lord, who starred in the award-winning The Fruit is There to Be Eaten1. I know I’ve found the right director in Patrick Kealey of Theatre Nation.
The first instruction at the top of the script is, “Don’t be afraid to make the audience laugh.” There is a kind of reverential halo with which we surround people with mental issues, but the truth is that my little exchange with my mother is both comic and tragic. A Pot of Tea for Two smashes the halo.
The central action of the play concerns a mother with dementia trying to make a pot of tea to take up to her visiting son and his boyfriend of a morning, to prove that everything is ‘All right now’. On one level it’s as farcical as the slapstick decorators or cooks in a pantomime scene.
On another we are willing Eileen to succeed, to grasp the threads of her scattered sanity one last time. For that’s the job of mothers, isn’t it? To kiss it better.
1. 2020 Derek Jarman Award. Catherine also featured in The Eternal Return. She founded the theatre company More Than Human and is writing a play about a transgender time-traveling Caliban.
Read the Script
View the YouTube recording of A Pot of Tea for Two.