MOVING: Above, Grandma, played by Nic Worsnop, struggles to make cup of tea as Oscar, operated by Sue Byrne and Adele Tyler, tries to help
MOVING: Above, Grandma, played by Nic Worsnop, struggles to make cup of tea as Oscar, operated by Sue Byrne and Adele Tyler, tries to help

A ground-breaking project involving the Barnard Castle Dementia Friendly Group and the Castle Players to raise awareness of dementia among the dale’s primary school pupils has been unveiled. Stuart Laundy reports

A UNIQUE project to highlight the plight of those living with dementia to primary school children in the dale was unveiled to its young audience for the first time last week.
Always By Your Side comprises a 15-minute play followed by a workshop to raise awareness of dementia among year six pupils.
The project, which was first suggested five years ago, is the brainchild of the Barnard Castle Dementia Friendly Group and has been brought to life by members of the Castle Players.
The play has been written by author Jessica Shepherd, who is originally from Lunedale, and is based on her book Grandma.
The workshop was created by dementia group member and former head teacher Susan Kirkbride.
As well as the Castle Players, the play features another star – a specially commissioned puppet of the central character Oscar.
Laurence Sach, chairman of the Castle Players, explained: “Although the play was to be cast from members of The Castle Players, there was one seven-and-a-half year old character that had to be made.
“Georgia Hill, a professional puppet and prop maker from Whitley Bay was commissioned to create Oscar, the central character who learns more about his own Grandma’s dementia during the play.”
The moving play features flashbacks, showing Oscar’s grandma as a younger woman before she is affected by dementia.
Due to Covid, the project was shelved, but Mr Sach said that with schools once again confident that visitors could be welcomed, plans for the first tour of Always by Your Side were made, bookings taken and rehearsals begun.
“The play and follow-up workshop were prepared in just five weeks,” he said.
It proved to be a huge success with pupils at Montalbo School on Monday.
Mr Sach said: “There was a wonderful sense of focus and concentration from all the pupils during the play and genuine engagement with the workshop exercises that followed.
“This is a difficult subject to tackle, but several children already knew of family members who were living with dementia.
“What I hope we will achieve with this project is giving younger people the opportunity to talk about such a difficult topic and to ask questions. Their response at Montalbo showed just how mature they are and how ready they are to engage with the issues.”
Ian Kirkbride, chairman of the Barnard Castle Dementia Friendly Group, said: “This project had its origins in our first ever public meeting in 2017 when the message was made clear to us – educate the children.
“We were almost ready to roll when Covid struck and it’s ironic that I missed the first performance because of Covid.
“That said, I’ve seen it in rehearsal and couldn't be happier now we’re doing something unique and for the benefit of the town’s continuing challenge in facing-up to dementia.”
Mrs Kirkbride added: “As a former primary headteacher, I know how important good quality, interactive learning can be which is what we hope we have provided.
“We’re so grateful to all our funders and to The Castle Players for making it happen and so lucky to have found Teesdale girl, Jessica Shepherd’s inspirational book Grandma as a stimulus. And of course, I just love Oscar.”
Funding for the project came from Teesdale Action Partnership, Teesdale Lions Club, Barnard Castle Town Council and Marwood Parish Council.
Further performances during the first tour of Always By Your Side will take place at Green Lane Primary School, St Mary's RC Primary School and Cotherstone Primary School.