The Lounge, which has been playing at London’s Soho Theatre, draws on two models of plot derived from the quest narrative. One of these is a tale of temptation in the framework of a road movie. A distracted young man is solicited for help by a stranger, an older woman bent on escape who offers him money to take her home. The trip she proposes would call for him to escort her to his car, drive through a major traffic pile-up, and deliver her to an address whose facilities she is able to describe in meticulous detail. For her such a trip would come at a heavy price: she will find the house she has lived in all her life in someone else’s hands and her belongings being auctioned and treated with contempt. Confronted with this debacle – that project of return that so often disappoints – what is she to do? What would the young man’s obligations be to her now?

We never find out, of course. Although The Lounge conjures up the prospect of this expedition through the older women’s intense propositioning, this is only a shadow-plot, its intended climax enacted in a fantasy sequence. She and her young companion never leave the nursing home where she now lives, aged 97, following the fracture of a hip. And indeed the young man would have been mistaken to take up her offer, the trip a deep diversion from the redemptive quest – plot two – on which he has already embarked. Like Orpheus or Odysseus he has descended into hell. Ostensibly he is looking for his grandfather (from whom he appears mildly estranged) to deliver a birthday present. Except that his grandfather is nowhere to be found and he must endure the presence of the other residents and the unhelpful ministrations of the staff. It is hot: he finds himself stared at, given random instructions, is poked and tickled and – as I’ve explained – invited to put himself in danger. He loses his temper, makes a grand confession, and becomes hysterical. And time passes. When he finally meets the manager he claims to have waited ninety minutes – whereas, as she points out forcefully, he had signed in only fifty minutes earlier, very late for his appointment.

The manager – part oracle, part judge – claims to know and see all (in the Arthurian cycle she would be a solitary monk). She is firmly liberal in defence of the residents’ independence and yet, in a Brechtian touch, appears oblivious to the regime she manages, a world of disembodied voice-overs and demeaning patter. In a nice evocation of the total institution The Lounge envisages a care home held together by a signature demonstration of staff control whereby everyone, including the visiting grandson, is moved on or silenced by a pat on the bottom. There is much to admire in the script: where it touches on policy and associated debate it is often very sharply written. We learn a good deal in a fantasised episode where the manager outlines an automated future for care as she stands with the grandson looking through the hole in a wall where an extension is being built. The play has been enthusiastically received, most notably by Stewart Dakers in The Guardian. He rightly admires the versatility of the cast and the reach of issues the script encapsulates. There are indeed some strong conceits, but in some ways Dakers does a better job than the play. In the end the two main older characters are observed rather than felt, their freedom curtailed by the meticulous detail in the mastery of movement, gesture and expression by the actors who play them. While one thinks only of escape the other seeks largely to gratify desire. They compete viciously for the TV remote.

This play may well have the wrong plot. A well-run nursing home need not be understood as a total institution. It is a very particular kind of community in which three things are all important: recognition by the outside world; caring – even loving – interaction between residents and staff; and the maintenance of a culture of meaning, adaptability and achievement. There’s no suggestion in The Lounge that the home is badly run, let alone abusive. We’re to understand it as a normative reality. But against those three priorities the perspective is pretty bleak: the outside world, notwithstanding the grandfather’s trips to the Esso garage, is distant and uncomprehending; social interactions are primitive and ritualised, and a culture of achievement is – sadly – ironised in the voiced-over announcements for activity sessions in which the three residents take no interest. Alienation is represented through a continuous misreading of their real desires and intentions, albeit cleverly and often astutely done, but in the locked-in manner of satire.

How could this lost world (if we accept it as such) be redeemed? Near the end of the play there is a crisis. In another fantasy episode voiced-over news broadcasts describe a revolution in care-homes across the country, triggered by a fire-alarm smashed in the one we’re watching. This points to another kind of plot altogether, the one shaped by an insurrection. The problem with this device is an inherent implausibility. One version (as in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, or, more distantly, Pasolini’s film Theorem) relies on the dangerous misplaced outsider – a relevant example would be the long-forgotten TV play by Tom Clarke in which a 67 year-old man (Denholm Elliot) moves into a retirement home and begins an affair with the manager (Connie Booth). If we turned to a more collectivised approach we would have to acknowledge that, outside the documentary field, solidarity is not a prominent theme in western literature (although it has sometimes surfaced in portrayals of school like Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite or Lindsay Anderson’s If).

An exception is Lope de Vega’s play Fuenteovejuna of 1619, a story of violent action to exact retribution for a droit de seigneur, taken by villagers who go on to assert collective responsibility and resist torture by the local nobility. In a conclusion with echoes of the Robin Hood stories the defiant villagers are pardoned through an intervention by Spain’s new overlords Ferdinand and Isabella. The benign and principled ruler is a widely available trope – it is even being claimed by President Trump. There are many literary precedents. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure borrows from the ancient idea of the gods walking the earth – think too of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor – when the Duke of Vienna appoints his lieutenant Angelo to manage and reform his corrupt domain. Claiming to have gone on a pilgrimage he returns in disguise to observe what transpires. A few years ago in the UK there was a spate of televised undercover investigations, some of dubious integrity, into a range of institutions. The scope in a reworked version of The Lounge for the deluded manager to age up and return as a resident is considerable. A campaign by the over-charged self-funders might offer a rich, divisive and dramatic theme. But the main problem with these insurrectionist and investigatory plotlines lies in the uncritical assumption that something is structurally amiss in the first place.

There’s a strong flavour of the Fuenteovejuna approach in John Arden’s The Happy Haven, which played to empty houses at the Royal Court in 1960. The setting is a care home run by a doctor where the elderly residents are being subject to a medical experiment. The play is a farce and the original production in Bristol drew on Theatre Workshop techniques (including the use of commedia dell’arte masks worn by ‘the Five Old People’). The characters are articulate, defiant, rambling and poetic in their view of the long life, robust, selfish, malicious and crafty in their dealings with each other – but capable of overcoming these differences to make and carry out a determined plan. To achieve this denouement Arden largely ignored the issue of senescence and – unlike, say, BS Johnson in his 1971 novel House Mother Normal – eschewed any explicit attempt to evoke interiority. Albert Hunt pointed out on the basis of the original productions the young actors ‘don’t become old… they are able to show us old age’ although we might now think equally of reflecting the audience’s ideas about old age. Arden’s rich language reflected the continuing human need to interpret experience and make meaning in circumstances where time and frailty undermine such efforts. Here, for example, the doting, Dickensian Mr Golightly, having reluctantly sung a ‘melancholy song’ at the insistence of a fellow-resident with whom he is enamoured tries to recover his self-possession and speak from the heart:

‘I don’t believe it! have always said love, Mrs Phineus, I have always believed it, I must still believe it, you cannot but credit that I have always certainly held to it, and even if without true experience, look, I have never really been able to put it to the proof – oh my dear Mrs Phineus, I have never killed a whale, I have never seen a whale, nor yet travelled on a ship, except to the Isle of Wight when my sister lived in Shanklin – but, Love, it must surely be Love, there is a star that will not turn, I have had a faith in this, for years, years, please, it must be true, Love is the meaning, say it is the conclusion – say it say it – please! …. Why, you’ve finished up all the tea, Mrs Phineus.’

The play, although a challenge to produce, and more dependent on literary convention than we might anticipate, deserves a revival, if only as a memorial to an earlier phase of the current debate about an ageing population and one now largely ignored. But it doesn’t offer an adequate answer to the dilemmas we must try to consider. While The Happy Haven does take for granted residents’ interaction with each other (although it is anachronistic about their level of capacity) and thereby offers us engaging protagonists (played in half-masks to show the imposed stereotype which they must unconsciously subvert) the regime they live under is portrayed only from the perspective required to defeat the doctor’s experiment. The play fails to address the management of daily life.

Nor does The Happy Haven hint at what the residents might do next. Are they now in control at the end? Would they want to be? Or is there a king across the water? Some traditions of dynastic merger (such as took place in England with the accession of William of Orange in 1689) or the expeditionary force coming to the aid of a beleaguered community (as in The Magnificent Seven) purport to address the empowerment of an oppressed host group. There have been real world echoes of this plot in recent years with the incorporation by residential homes of alternative therapists, activity organisers and dignity champions – even of attempts to remodel them around therapeutic action. But such a project must find itself increasingly at odds with both personalisation and market-led strategies. With individuality stressed at every turn the benighted regime must try and cater equally for our demands for autonomy and separateness while sustaining communal requirements for the regular and predictable.

An emphasis on supporting shared identity has become harder to maintain or even propose: the home in Islington to which Linda Grant’s mother was admitted in the 1990s would be a rarity. An inspiring variation on this theme appears in Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. He describes the benign consequences of a beleagured nursing home taking in a consignment of 100 parakeets. In the chaos that follows these unplanned admissions, and as residents become involved in providing for the birds ‘people who we had believed weren’t able to speak started speaking’ (p 122), triggering social processes that Gawande links to Josiah Royce’s critique of individualism and definition of ‘loyalty’ which:

‘solves the paradox of our ordinary existence by showing us outside of ourselves the cause which is to be served, and inside of ourselves the will which delights to do this service, and which is not thwarted but enriched and expressed in such service’ (p 127).

Gawande aligns this perspective from moral philosophy with Maslow and the psychology of transcendence. I think we may just need to restore it for communal practice and practical politics.

Ultimately, whatever the sources for its plot, The Lounge is a satire on alienation and disconnectedness, both between individuals and between life-stages. The audience is invited to consider its own complacency. The play seeks to alert us to the consequences of ignoring the future. We are privy to what the staff can’t see – or choose not to know. At one point in the battle for the remote one resident appears to have killed another: the pert voice-over refers to a murder. But life in the lounge continues – yet another thing the staff don’t notice. Well and good. But in choosing this route the play inadvertently shuts out both its older subjects and those whose daily work is dictated by their needs. Unless – as some insist – we intend to eliminate the institution itself we must somehow puncture this perpetually tempting nightmare construction. True, we could always return to the romance hero and cast The Lounge’s grandson as a modern-day Parsifal. In a parallel myth when Orpheus descended into Hell to recover his murdered wife Eurydice he is a hit, a singer who ‘not only charmed the ferryman Charon, the Dog Cerberus, and the three Judges of the Dead… but temporarily suspended the tortures of the damned’. If hell could be re-enchanted he – and we – could surely make short work of a care home.

Let me instead suggest a different scenario, a mode which could be explored through any number of narrative devices. A few years ago I was asked briefly to represent independent advocacy to support the Office of Fair Trading with their investigation of a super-complaint about care homes – the topics under consideration related to transparency of contracts, administration of charges and responsiveness to complaints. Initially, I met the team and, partly to be provocative, asked if they had been surprised to discover there was no national association for residential and care home residents. Not only that, I was told, but they had been disconcerted to find the age interest groups doubtful and discouraging of their intention to carry out a survey by interviewing such residents. In the end the OFT carried out many interviews and they also received a large number of letters, not just from relatives but from people living in the homes themselves. It proved not to be such an inaccessible world, bounded by infirmity, fear and incomprehension, as they had been advised. Their impertinence was rewarded with a lot of good data.

I envisage a staging using verbatim techniques and a plain stylisation to build a picture of the ambivalence and sense of injustice, the experience of being misrepresented, overlooked and over-ridden, through the accounts provided by the ‘alienated’ themselves. The larger themes – life, death, the experience of loss – could be allowed to recede, prompting us to uncover the roots of a possible response from which to recover these disconnected relationships. We need to remake such connections and to see the world of tiny detail that often opens up as necessary, worth the time and the effort. Without this we risk making no preparation for dealing with our similar circumstances if the time comes and lose sight of the exacting task facing those paid to be our constant companions.