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Colder Than Here by Laura Wade at the Jack Studio Theatre

Myra Bradley (Laura Fitzpatrick) is keen to reduce her own funeral’s costs, by requesting the family take care of the arrangements themselves. Her husband, Alec (Michael Tuffnell) objects: isn’t it a requirement to use a funeral director? (It isn’t – nobody has ever been prosecuted for not using one, because there isn’t a law that says people must.) Their two daughters, Jenna (Lisa Minichiello) and Harriet (Emma Riches) have different ways of coping with – well, anything.

Colder Than Here by Laura Wade at the Jack Studio Theatre.
Colder Than Here by Laura Wade at the Jack Studio Theatre.

Myra turns out to be a complex character. The family, it seems, can’t win. While Myra acknowledges she won’t be around, by definition, to witness her funeral, she still wants to have her way, with PowerPoint slide decks full of requests and requirements. But when Jenna asks for further particulars with regards to what food should be served at the wake, Myra waves, almost dismissively, saying Jenna and the others can make their own minds up. Then there’s Myra’s eco-friendliness, and her choice of coffin, which is not only considerably cheaper than a ‘traditional’ one but is indeed kinder to the environment. In this regard at least, the show seems more pertinent in 2023 than it would have been when it premiered in 2005.

The family home, for reasons explained in the show, hasn’t had heating for the entire winter, which just so happens to resonate with people who went without heating last winter because they couldn’t (or in my case, stubbornly wouldn’t) pay the increased gas prices. But the play remains firmly in its time – they all have mobile phones and use them predominantly to make and receive telephone calls, for instance – and seemingly makes no attempt to be relevant to today’s post-pandemic world.

Granted, death and funerals are universal themes, so perhaps relevance is a moot point. Still, the play is less impactful these days in educating audiences about the possibilities of alternative funeral arrangements than it would have been when first performed, such is the greater level of awareness about available options. But there is still considerable room for improvement in society at large to talk more freely about dying and bereavement.

Looking at the list of scenes in the programme, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a deeply depressing show. Apart from the ‘living room’ (pun acknowledged), there’s a burial ground, ‘another burial ground’, a civil cemetery, and ‘another burial ground’ (that is, a third one). It’s not that Myra has more resurrections than Jesus, but rather there are visits to various places to see which one would be most appropriate. At face value, it seems a ridiculous thing for a family to explore, but it does make emotional and logical sense, at least for them.

But, partly thanks to Alec’s stiff upper lip approach and Myra’s sense of humour, there are some lighter moments, especially when certain topics of conversation crop up with their daughters. The play’s comedy is mischievously dark: I chuckled at a point raised by Myra about the possibility of voided bowels shortly after she pops her clogs. Jenna has her own issues, somewhat but not entirely resolved, much to Harriet’s frustration as she (Harriet) tears into her sister, feeling as though family life has revolved around Jenna and her problems, real as they are, for too long.

What’s particularly striking – and refreshing – about the show is a lack of sentimentality. There were, to mis-coin a phrase, plenty of dry eyes in the house. The play and this production of it do well to portray how life carries on even in the face of death, and there are subtle but repeated reminders that nobody takes anything with them when they join that great ensemble in the sky, not even long-expired items in the fridge. The small cast gels well together in an unusual but thoughtful piece of theatre.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

I walked in and she’s sat in the coffin. In the middle of the living-room floor and she’s – she’s watching telly and laughing

Nobody can ignore the fact that Myra is dying but in the meantime life goes on. There are boilers to be fixed, cats to be fed and the perfect funeral to be planned.

As a mother researches burial spots and bio-degradable coffins, her family are finally forced to communicate with her, and each other, as they face up to an unpredictable future. This delicately balanced drama reminds us that love and laughter can still be found in the most difficult times.

Colder Than Here
by Laura Wade
directed by Jenny Eastop
produced by Upper Hand Theatre
Tuesday 5 – Saturday 23 September 2023 at 7.30 pm

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