If you are going to write an eighty minute comic monologue about dying and organising funerals then you want to make sure you fill your script with enough life to keep your audience’s attention from giving up the ghost well before its running time expires.
Unfortunately, Mourning Tea, written and directed by AWGIE nominated comedy writer Angus Fitzsimons, finds itself in need of urgent life support from the moment the stage lights come up.
Veteran actor Kim Lewis is the earnest eulogist in this leaden casket of a show. She plays Grace Stevens, a once well-regarded author who is emerging from a lengthy period of emotional limbo; having worked for a small-town undertaker for the best part of the last five years since her husband Alan passed on.
Despite her best efforts, Lewis’s attempt to have us accompany her on the journey from grief, to acceptance and rebirth proves to be a challenge that she struggles to fully master.
Fitzsimons’s script is extremely dialogue heavy, so much so that Lewis struggles to recall it all and therefore consistently stay within character. During this particular performance she occasionally tripped up as she tried to deliver the relentless deluge of words her character has to utter. It was evident that she often lost her momentum at these moments, trying gallantly to restore the audience’s suspension of disbelief and to regain the necessary degree of timing, nuance and poignancy that much of this material requires in order to achieve its full effect.
It does not help that she has been directed to stand in the one spot for the entirety of the play. This means that she is never able to move away from the intensely magnified critical scrutiny such a static placement encourages, and her range of gestures becomes limited so that they seem awkward and repetitive as a result. It could be argued that by having his actor stand at an unadorned lectern, or pulpit, for the entire performance, Fitzsimons has rendered this play a non-event theatrically – you may as well be listening to a podcast, or an audiobook, at home.
Fitzsimons, to his credit, does ensure that the play’s central themes of death, grief and love, are consistently presented with a gentle touch. No doubt, the audience at this performance, being generally in the demographic who would be finding questions on these topics coming to the forefront of their minds more frequently as their futures rapidly shrink, would have appreciated this approach.
However, the lack of spontaneous belly laughs from the audience throughout the show, despite the script’s many obviously flagged punchlines, would suggest that the humour Fitzsimons employs often misses its mark.
The pathos, the heart, at the core of the plot does threaten to reveal itself at a number of points, but the lack of clear air in the script does not allow it the space to register fully with the audience and therefore make any real or lasting impact. Whilst the play pokes fun at the cod greeting card philosophies often bandied around at times of other peoples’ grief, it often falls into the trap of then delivering its well-intentioned sentiment a little too slickly and insincerely itself.
The fact that Fitzsimons’ script incorporates a number of superfluous literary quotations in an attempt to give it some deeper thematic heft, referencing writers such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Agatha Christie and W. Somerset Maugham at regular intervals, seemed to add to the impression that the script was a little too contrived.
The choice of using Somerset Maugham’s name was quite ironic as it was he who once famously said: ‘Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.’
I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting you should apply this bumper sticker witticism to any decision as to whether you should attend a performance of Mourning Tea or not, but it does suffice as a warning.
As the season progresses, the performances may become more fluent and cohesive, and the show’s intended impact more readily felt. On the evidence of this first performance however, for this show to be fully resuscitated, Kim Lewis, who is undoubtedly a fine actress, will have to work very hard to overcome the directorial impediments that are currently blocking its airways.
Mourning Tea is playing at The Playhouse at the Adelaide Festival Centre until February 5.
Bookings here: Mourning Tea tix