Poignancy and dementia in a play that slowly grows - at Chichester Festival Theatre

Prism -Robert Lindsay
Prism -Robert Lindsay

Prism, Chichester Festival Theatre, until November 9, written and directed by Terry Johnson.

Robert Lindsay gives a remarkable portrayal of a great (or at least, decidedly lively) mind in terminal decline, the mind of the double Oscar-winning cinematic master Jack Cardiff as he battles dementia.

His son has set him up in his garage and surrounded him with memorabilia and portraits of the screen goddesses his work helped immortalise.

The big hope is that in these circumstances, Cardiff’s autobiography will come tumbling out. Jack has even been given a carer/typist to help him get it all down for posterity.

But Jack is hardly in the right frame of mind to oblige – or indeed any frame of mind. He’d far rather relive the great moments than simply set them down.

And you can understand why.

Given the choice of transporting yourself back to the set of The African Queen or endlessly pondering whether you are in a pub or a garage, it’s not a tough call… especially when your mind can also rustle up, out of nowhere, Marilyn Monroe.

Jack’s lines have become distinctly blurred, and there’s a gentle comedy to be had – though more impressively Lindsay certainly gives a chillingly authentic take on the argumentativeness of dementia, the endless circumlocutions when the right word won’t come, the endless repetitions and the sheer disorientation… all of which gives the play an increasing poignancy.

We get to see the effect on those around Jack – his long-suffering wife (Tara Fitzgerald) reimagined as Katharine Hepburn, his carer (Victoria Blunt) transformed into Marilyn and his son (Oliver Hembrough) both Humphrey Bogart and Arthur Miller.

In truth, it isn’t the easiest play to get into, with an opening sequence that’s neither funny nor particularly touching. But it’s certainly a play which rewards patience.

If the first half is leaving you largely cold, stick with it for a second half which, almost unnoticeably, becomes far more emotionally involving as Lindsay’s performance, never losing its charm amid the madness, grows and grows.

Maybe in the end, it’s a piece which might have better suited to the Minerva.