Review: Dead Good at Unity Theatre *****
Vamos Theatre was due to pay Liverpool a visit as part of the Unity’s 40th anniversary celebrations.
Then the pandemic arrived and threw live theatre into chaos, and stages into darkness.
But you can’t keep a ‘dead good’ show down, and two years – and a lot of face coverings – on from those dark days, the Worcester-based masters of masked theatre have finally made it north with the most perfect and powerful 75-minutes of silent storytelling you’re likely to see.
I say silent, but while the four-strong cast skilfully emote from behind anonymous full-face masks, the action is accompanied by an atmospheric and delightful original soundtrack from Janie Armour.
On paper a tale about the end of life may not appear to offer much in the way of levity, but Vamos’ writer/director Rachael Savage has crafted something which is laugh-out-loud funny while at the same time being almost unbearably poignant.
Joker Bernard (James Greaves) and shy and reserved Bob (Alan Riley) meet at St Stephen’s Hospice. Both are recently diagnosed with illnesses for which there is no cure, only palliative care, and are coming to terms with their new reality in different ways.
Above: Hospice selfie. Photo by Graeme Braidwood. Top: Bob and Bernard at the seaside. Image by Graeme Braidwood/Keiran@SourceCreative
While Bernard has embarked on a ‘do not go gentle into that good night’ path, Bob seems more outwardly shell shocked – but as flashbacks beamed on to the triptych sections of simple set reveal, there’s more going on behind the public mask.
Eventually the pair find common ground over fast cars and form a fast and intense friendship, embarking on a series of giddy adventures, supported by the compassion of the hospice staff (Radhika Aggarwal and Bidi Iredale, who also take on other incidental character roles).
There’s a trip to the seaside, a roll in and stumble out of more than a few pubs, a wincing detour to A&E with a crushing loss of dignity, and a devilish men-behaving-badly visit to The Ritz.
The joyful larkiness is intensified by the men’s affecting vulnerability, which comes to the fore as their conditions deteriorate and mischief and vitality begins to be replaced by fear and frailty.
“What are you doing?” Bob’s worried wife texts him at one point. “Living x” he replies.
And there’s a lot of living to be done in this heart-warming (and heart-breaking) story of friendship, love, kindness, gentleness and celebration of the human spirit.