I have to say, He Gave Me Heroin is a pretty misleading title for this particular play. It suggests something gritty and bleak; in fact, it’s a warming portrayal of companionship in older age. The whole script takes the form of a single, everyday conversation, taking place one morning between lifelong friends Marion and Sadie. The heroin, it turns out, is just a misunderstanding… an invention of the elderly Sadie’s confused and fading mind.
Plenty of recent plays tackle the subject of dementia, but He Gave Me Heroin still manages to give the topic a novel and important spin. Sadie is muddled, certainly, and less alert than once she was; but it’s still a gently affirming portrayal, because she hasn’t lost her underlying vitality. Sometimes, though, the doubts set in, perhaps when she realises she’s remembered someone else’s story as her own. And it’s at those times that actor Sarah Mann excels, with a single expression capturing a poignant mix of confusion, distress and fear.
The script is also a study on the wider theme of memory, posing questions which are relevant at any stage of life. Sadie and Marion discuss how it feels when a loved one is gone; whether it’s right to cling on to reminiscences, and how the events we’d like to forget are often the ones which linger in our minds. In fact, the play tackles a huge range of concepts – perhaps slightly too many for its hour-long running time – but the caring friendship between the two women is always at its core. Janette Eddisford strikes just the right note as the patient but assertive Marion, symbolising so many selfless people who offer comfort to those in their declining years.
Playwright James Aden’s down-to-earth dialogue is engaging and thoroughly believable, albeit that overly lyrical notes do occasionally creep in. There’s sharp wit and plenty of out-and-out humour, and earlier themes are adroitly recalled later in the play. I could have lived without the humorous references to AIDS – even when justified by the character, some jokes just aren’t funny – but on the whole, I enjoyed the daring notes of political incorrectness, a candid reflection of what can happen when a waning mind regresses into the less-enlightened past.
The women reveal their life stories in measured, digestible doses, and a few secrets come out as well – including one which hints at storms on the horizon, the possibility that this peaceful equilibrium might now be disturbed. We hear universal stories of loss and longing, and learn of wounds which maybe now just don’t have time to heal. If you’ve ever lost someone you cared about, it grows almost heartbreaking at times; but despite all that, this is a warm and reassuring play, which tells us that though our end is inevitable we needn’t confront it alone.