Wife After Death
By the Lichfield Players
Lichfield Garrick Studio Theatre
Tuesday 24 September 2019
By Theatre Reviewer Jono Oates
Do we really know, I mean really know, everything about our best friend…our closest work colleague…our wife, husband or partner…? This is the dilemma which greatly troubles Harvey Barrett in the latest production from the Lichfield Players, Wife After Death.
On Monday evening I had been to the dress rehearsal of the raucous, lively and song-laden musical Sister Act in the main theatre. But on Tuesday the setting for an evening’s richly dark humour of an Eric Chappell play was spent in the new look Studio Theatre. The layout has been dramatically altered since the last time I was there, bringing it into line with the main theatre – the audience now sit on two blocks of banked seating, with a central walkway access, so a cinema layout style, and looking down on the studio stage as opposed to the three-quarter surround of the previous layout.
However, some things were comfortably reassuring as I settled into my new, and very comfortable, red seat. Firstly, this was a production by the experienced Lichfield Players group, one of the most established amateur theatre companies in Staffordshire, and I recognised a wide sprinkling of names both within the cast list and behind the scenes. Secondly the name Eric Chappell leapt out of the programme at me and, involuntarily, made me smile. Responsible for writing some of the wittiest, finest and sharpest comedy in British TV history, he could make up a whole episode of Channel 5’s ‘Greatest TV Comedy Shows’ on his own: Rising Damp; Only When I Laugh; Duty Free; Home to Roost and The Bounder to name but a few. So, it was little surprise to me that this play made me chuckle, guffaw, contemplate, consider and reflect all in the space of a couple of hours.
Set in the luxurious home of the recently widowed Laura Thursby, the play revolves around the death, and consequent funeral of, her late husband David. A comedian and household name who had touched the hearts of the nation, think Ken Dodd, Bruce Forsyth and Les Dawson, he’d made it to the top with the help of his agent, Kevin Prewitt, and his main comedy writer and best friend, the afore mentioned Harvey Barrett.
At the funeral Harvey and his long suffering and put-upon wife, Vi, consider Dave’s life and the impact he had had upon them both as Dave ‘lies in state’ in the open coffin before the cremation. They are joined by agent Kevin, who Harvey dislikes and enjoys winding up, and his mousey wife Jane. Laura, the glamourous and money-obsessed widow, is clearly distraught but looks certain to enjoy her future as the ‘Merrie Widow’. As the couple’s console Laura and plan their roles at the funeral service, a shadowy ‘Black Widow’, a complete stranger, appears on the scene. When she reveals herself as Kay, a former ‘acquaintance’ of Dave’s, the relationships between all of the characters start to unravel, long held secrets are uncovered, home truths are viciously thrust home and skeletons are brought out of firmly closed cupboards – especially in the case of ‘mousey’ Jane…
After numerous ‘reveals’ and a truly dramatic conclusion, Harvey is left to ponder whether anyone of us really, deeply, truly ever know another person, no matter how long, or well we believe, we have known them.
This is a fascinating play, there are plenty of Chappell-esque witty one liners and slapstick comedy with a couple of fantastic irreverent scenes which are guaranteed to make you laugh and wince in equal measure. But there is also a sharp edge to this comedy with a chocolatey dark humour that runs through it, that goes along with the coffin with the cadaver of the late, somewhat lamented, Dave that sits on the stage for most of the play.
Behind every clown is a sad man, so they say, and in Dave’s case he clearly resented those around him, even though he smiled in their faces. Dave’s relationship with Harvey appears to mirror that of the real-life comedy giant Tony Hancock with his main writers Galton and Simpson, a relationship that soured as time went by, and professional jealousies took over.
The cast is led superbly by Richard Clarke as the wise cracking, sarcastic and master of the comic wind-up Harvey Barrett. He has a huge amount of lines and is on stage the whole duration of the play. He has that lovely world-weariness and cynicism which suits this role down to the ground. You can’t help but like the cocky and cock sure Harvey though and, despite his faults, he does make you laugh, even when he is being slightly cruel.
Vi Barrett is played by the excellent Fiona Willimott who, as well as a delightfully drawn northern England accent, provides a lot of the comic pratfalls and expressions, she is always a very entertaining watch. Ian Parkes is the well-meaning, but slightly pompous Kevin, a show business agent who struck gold when he leapt onto the Dave Thursby bandwagon and now realises the goose that laid the golden egg has disappeared. Again, some lovely comedic moments and when Dave has a direct impact on him from the grave, he displays a wonderfully hang-dog ‘woe is me’ expression. Carol Talbot plays Kevin’s seemingly loyal wife Jane with a nicely balanced, and believable, understated performance. Kay is played by Rosemary Bodger, another relaxed and convincing performance as the spectre from Dave’s past and the cast sextet is ably completed by Christine Kernahan playing the upwardly mobile, though perhaps heading for a fall from grace, grieving widow.
The play is directed by Sarah Stanley and she brings a lovely balance to this play as it could easily veer uncontrollably into hyper-hysterical knockabout comedy. There is a nice mix here, between easy going gentle humour, some Brian Rix style farce, thought-provoking words of wisdom, tender scenes where the characters show their true feelings and, throughout, the sadness and emotion of broken relationships and friendships.
Before the start, and during the interval, of the play the theatre background music is a series of, generally, comic songs from some of the stars of the 1970’s including the imperious Morecambe and Wise. But one particular song caught my attention – Sister Josephine by the distinctive clipped tones of balladeer and poet Jake Thackray. I’d completely forgotten about Jake, and this song, but for a few years, he was a regular on 1970’s Saturday night TV entertainment shows. Sister Josephine and Wife After Death took me back to the 1970’s, took me back to Rising Damp and Morecambe and Wise, took me back to just three TV channels and took me back to watching well written, cleverly written, thoughtfully written and wittily written scripts. If you’d like to go back to the spirit of the 1970’s too (but without the dodgy fashions!) then I’d heartily recommend Wife After Death.
Oooh – and one little item to spot – have a look at the playing cards at the back of the set…they may have a role to play too…;)
Wife After Death by the Lichfield Players is on at the Lichfield Garrick Studio Theatre until Saturday 28 September, performances start at 7.45pm and there is a Saturday matinee at 2.45pm.
Ticket prices start from £15 per person and are available from the Garrick Box Office on Castle Dyke, ring 01543 412121 or book via their website: www.lichfieldgarrick.com