It might seem odd that a semi-improvised show at the Vault Festival is using this performance style in a show that puts death at the centre of the story but, as the cast tell us right at the beginning, there is perhaps only one thing worse than death itself: audience interaction. As the audience is guided to their seats by one of the performers, we’re asked for our names and given a name label, which the cast use throughout the show to ask us questions. Myself and my companion are asked if we have any pets and where we come from; my friend’s dog Pepe was later to feature in the show, as were many other audience anecdotes and facts, which are weaved into the storytelling through dialogue and song. The show contrasts moments of audience interaction where (tonight) Amy Fleming asks us to vote, cheer and reveal personal opinions which then become the details of the story, with intimate scenes that reveal the life and relationships of our protagonist. Tonight, she is called Daffodil (as suggested by one of the audience), played by Molly Small, who has been diagnosed with a generic terminal illness. The finale of the show is the dress rehearsal of Daffodil’s funeral, in which we are all invited to be apart of the celebration of life.
Stylistically, the interaction with the audience is a really exciting element. We’re never made to feel too uncomfortable or embarrassed, but rather we share in the delight of voting on audience suggestions and hearing stories about disastrous first dates. The randomness of the suggestions, with the show still running smoothly, emphasises the nature of death: that every person dies, no matter who they are or what sort of life they live. The details are sort of irrelevant, yet by picking on parts of individual lives, it can also feel incredibly personal at times. What becomes jarring is the sudden contrast of scenes, as we’re suddenly thrown into a dramatic monologue which philosophises the essence of memories, or an upsetting conversation between the protagonist and a family member. It slips from light audience interaction into what feels like naturalistic drama, and the effect of this choice isn’t particularly clear.
The cast of five are wonderfully enthusiastic. There was a moment tonight where I thought one of them was going to corpse in a serious scene due to the way one of the audience suggestions was incorporated, and I think I would have preferred it if they did. It feels like the humour that comes with semi-improvisation is being hidden behind moments of real emotion, which partly undermines the purpose of the improvisation: that failure, laughing, breaking out of character is often what connects an audience to its improvising performers, and I wanted them to play with this a bit more throughout.
As the dress rehearsals for Daffodil’s funeral is prepared, the audience is invited to join in, to sit on the floor, put on a party hat, and raise a glass of prosecco, whilst (tonight anyway) Stella Taylor plays a song on a Ukulele, the lyrics partially made up of suggestions from earlier on in the evening. Clashing styles of improvisation and realism come together, as Small and Taylor begin to cry. Andrew David and Daniel Ward offer speeches. They feel a bit awkward and uncomfortable, but then funerals are sometimes awkward and uncomfortable.
Coming to a close, our offerings from the evening have been hung up on washing lines which hang at the top of the performance space, and we come together, as a community, and sing ‘Here Comes the Sun (doo doo doo doo)’. The form is an experiment, which doesn’t always work, but is ultimately enjoyable and full of play, even though it doesn’t quite teach us anything about death that we don’t already know.
Review by Joseph Winer
For VAULT Festival 2019, Fine Mess Theatre present a thoroughly modern play about death.
Exploring language, grief, and the celebration (or lack thereof) of life, A Wake in Progress uniquely combines scripted scenes and audience interaction to offer a humorous yet moving tale of love, death and funerals. Interrogating how we really feel about the subject of death, the final scene will differ each night based on the input of the audience during the performance. A young person is dying. But they aren’t going to go out without one final gesture: something that everyone will remember them by. A Wake in Progress invites audiences to begin an investigation considering what death means to them and even asking them to face up to their own fate.
Writer Joel Samuels
Director Liz Bacon
Producer Leila Sykes with Fine Mess Theatre
Cast: Andrew David, Amy Fleming, Molly Small, Stella Taylor, Daniel Ward
A Wake in Progress
Performance Dates Wednesday 6th – Sunday 10th February 2019
Wednesday – Sunday, 9.20pm
Saturday matinee, 4.50pm
Running time 1 hour
Age Recommendation 12+
VAULT Festival Cage, Leake St, Lambeth, London SE1 7AD