Chris Eldon Lee reviews Vamos Theatre’s ‘Dead Good’ which he saw at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn. The tour includes Wolverhampton’s Arena Theatre on March 5th and 6th.
This is the big one!
I have watched Vamos Theatre company with increasing admiration over the past 15 years. They entered my heart in my local village hall with a cosy, jokey play about three old-time nurses. But in recent times they have chilled it; using their mask/mime genre to brilliantly explore issues of mental health such as dementia, post-combat trauma and, now the ultimate taboo, End of Life Care.
In extreme circumstances where there simply are no words … wordless theatre speaks volumes.
The remarkable Rachael Savage has done her homework, in nursing homes hospitals and hospices. And with the expert help of terminally ill collaborators, she has produced a show bubbling with humour and awash with pathos. Those of us who have seen a loved one die will know how these two emotions are worthy bedfellows. Whilst I was audibly sobbing towards the end of the play, there was so much to giggle at along the way.
We meet old Bob and Bernard, sweaty-palmed and nervous at the hospital, waiting for their test results. Kindly medics show them their files and give them ‘the leaflet’. Whilst we cannot see their faces, we can tell by the dropping of their shoulders that it’s not good news. Strangers who were irritating each other moments ago, are now cast off in the same boat. And it’s only going one way.
But it can be steered on a circuitous route.
In flash-back we see schoolboy Bernard playing with a red toy sports car. Old man Bernard fumbles for his car keys (a recurring motif of hopefulness) and we’re off on a last adventure.
In a new departure for Vamos, video footage is shown of the two men – in their favourite old stripy blazers – having a high time in London and at the seaside; raging against their decline. There is something innately comical about seeing masked characters walking city streets or on playing on public beaches.
Back on stage we see the two old men struggling to get into and out of deck chairs and trying to remember how to skim a flat stone. They go for tea at The Ritz (what else do you do when time is running out?) and get thrown out for acting like naughty schoolboys and terrorising an old lady.
In the care establishment there are some lovely vignette. Bob has to have a catheter fitted by a nervous nurse. (Only Vamos would put that on stage and get a gale of laughter from it). And I shivered at the memory of cancer patients being given meaningless craft-type things to do to occupy their minds; though the potted plant does come in handy later on.
All the time their friendship grows – and all the time we know that one of them will go first, to be mourned by the other. The fateful day is delicately portrayed by a series of unbearably raw glimpses, each more hopeless than the last, but still not quite devoid of wicked humour. Putting the radio on as a distraction is a disaster. It’s playing ‘Staying Alive’ by the Bee Gees.
The cast of four have impassive faces, of course, though their changing demeanour leads you to swear you saw a smile or a tear. The gestures, the hints, the body language do the rest. Just a momentary stance can convey reluctance or bewilderment; all underscored by Janie Armour’s sensitively integrated music track.
This new production will caress the soul of anyone who has ‘been there and done it’. Vamos are passed masters of their rare art. Dealing with death is their ultimate challenge. So, what’s next?
Visit www.theatresevern.co.uk for bookings & information about Theatre Severn