Death, but no Life [by James Wenley]
Wearing an over-sized peach rain jacket, square-framed glasses, and a nervous grin, Tai Berdinner-Blades gives us an endearing performance as novice funeral embalmer Julie. Once we’re settled onstage she comes front to welcome us, cue cards in hand, and tell us about the play Balmy that is to follow (and also helpfully points out the exits).
The conceit is Julie has some “serious stuff” she wanted to communicate so got in touch with Basement programmer Sophie, who got her together with Two Productions and director Holly Chappell.
Julie is one of life’s passive dreamers, a quiet soul who often has people walk all over her. She needs to keep practicing embalming the bodies, but the senior staff locks her out, and her boss is unreceptive. For us, she’s the likeable and sweetly charming underdog, and it’s a character set-up that we can quickly warm to.
In the preshow introductions we also meet actor Tom Eason of Toi Whakaari, who plays all the other characters – including boss Roger, the receptionist, and snobby Patricia. He gets some instant laughs with his exaggerated vowels and physicalities as he runs us through each one, but with this easy initial comedy achieved, they have nowhere else to go in the play. The boss is used to drive home how little notice is taken of Julie, but these figures remain stock, lifeless. The only exception is Tom’s performance of wordless Dave, the hearse driver, who dances onto stage, accompanied by classical music, as if he is playing some sort of air-cello. This characterization is a leap of absurd imagination, and becomes an enigmatic and later troubling presence.
For a devised show that is only 40 minutes, there is a lot of dead air. Once introductions are done, Julie spends an awfully long time sweeping the floor, finding neither comedy nor pathos, in this action. While it first goes for a generalised tone of funeral parlor quirk, Balmy also shows an impulse towards a more philosophical and existential mode.
There is no set to speak of, but Chappell shows a visual eye in moving Julie’s and Tom’s bodies around the space, and there is a clever interplay of light and dark in the design, which starts to take us towards that latter mode. Tom as a traveler uses a small torch for a dramatic and mysterious entrance. Thomas Press’s sound design makes for effective mood-setting.
Then. It’s all over. Her story is done. Structurally it feels like we only got the set-up, with two more acts still to go. But not tonight. There is no underdog triumph or great change. It feels like very little, in fact, has happened when the actors take their bows.
There does seem to be an attempt at a profound lesson. We’re told earlier about the shoebox which used to contain everything in the universe, and how everything continues to expand and move further apart. There’s a journey still to be had.
But I’m left empty. There’s nothing really for me in her story. I haven’t gained any insight into the life of an embalmer, nor have I been inspired to live the life I want to lead (to paraphrase the marketing blurb). I accept that in the suddenness of the conclusion there is a message to be found, albeit a depressing one. But Julie’s hopeful and calm tone as she finishes the play suggests that they would like us to feel more uplifted, or at least soothed.
Having stated the intent to deliver some “serious stuff”, and gone through the rigmarole of putting on the production, I’m surprised that this stuff was not more strongly conveyed. Chappell works part-time at a funeral home, so certainly would have no shortage of material. However, the good ideas in the creators’ minds in the devising process have not successfully been translated. There’s a spark of life that is missing, but could yet be found.
Balmy is presented by Two Productions and plays at The Basement Studio until 17 August. Details see The Basement.