Dying of Laughter [by James Wenley]
On a routine visit to the hospital after a blow to the head caused by his best friend re-enacting Fight Club, Charlie Morris is informed he has a terminal illness, and his days are numbered.
Now that is a profound life changing moment; too big to even begin to understand for people outside of it. When Charlie Morris tells his friends that he is dying, they’re immediate response is to say “Well, we’re all dying”. Charlie’s “just became more relevant”.
Thanks to many films and TV on the subject, there’s an awful lot of cliché associated with this sort of news too. Think the sort of plots (eg: The Bucket List) where the news spurs them to start living their life to the full, learning some important lessons along the way, and we end with a sad, but ultimately life affirming message.
Chris Neels’ new play The Seven Funerals of Charlie Morris acknowledges, then bypasses the cliché, dealing with a young man’s imminent mortality with sensitivity, honesty, and a thick coating of black humour. The subject matter may sound like a downer, but it’s treated with a truthful lightness and serious fun that that makes for truly charming and enjoyable story. And yes, the ending might even be a little life affirming too. It made me want to stand up cheer – but more on that later.
Charlie (Ash Jones) is being introspective in a bath tub as the audience enters the Basement Studio. A piano is cleverly hidden behind it, played live by Sean Webb, whose music through the play helps makes it sparkle. Chalk drawings on the walls suggest bathroom tiles and towel rack.
Charlie is compelled to speak us, listing the common complaints of twenty-something neurosis: no job, no direction, stuck in a cycle of drugs and alcohol, stumbling through the days of the week. He says he wants an “experience”. We get the idea of a keen intelligence and self-awareness, and a potential that could be applied if he pulled himself together. His best friend Pete (playwright Chris Neels) arrives with a bounce of energy – we learn they are in the bathroom of a house he is “cat-sitting” for three months. He has a BA degree, but no job either (of course), surviving on lots of different work. There’s some watchable blokey banter between them, riffing on different subjects like the merits of “food wrapped in food”. It reminds me a bit of a Judd Apatow film with a sort of Seth Rogan/Paul Rudd vibe. It’s fun, but to the play’s credit it becomes much more than this when Charlie learns he has a brain tumor.
Charlie doesn’t so much start living, but starts thinking about the best way of dying. Inspired by the childhood story of Tom Sawyer, who spied on his own funeral, Charlie and Pete hatch a scheme of trying out different funerals from around the world, hence the title, to try and figure out the best one. These include a disastrous attempt at Egyptian mummification, a Viking funeral pyre, and a Buddhist ceremony.
There’s a girl too – there usually is. She’s (the character is listed as ‘She’ in the program) played by Go Girl’s Esther Stephens and presents as bit of a mystery woman, changing her name (Jean Simmons one day, Cleopatra the next) each time Charlie and her meet. They first encounter each other on a bus, and a after a spark of attraction she soon gets drawn into the funeral plot, pushing out Pete as they fall in love. We later learn how and why she is not who she says she is.
Despite going gung-ho for funerals, there’s a lot of denial of Charlie’s situation. Perhaps because he doesn’t even know what the correct emotional response to it all is, Charlie keeps it bottled up and even appears like he is coping. Effective are increasingly urgent phone messages left by his parents overseas, which Charlie does not respond to, showing his disconnection from the world.
There’s some narrative confusion in the middle after a trip to the doctor shows the tumor is in recession, helped, it is suggested, by Charlie’s happiness in his relationship with she. It seems things might turn out okay, but it’s not clear why his relationships with both Pete and She start destructing. It’s soon clear that things are not going to be okay at all, and finally we see Charlie break down and fully acknowledge his situation.
It’s a real gut-wrenching moment and an astonishing performance from Ash Jones. Jones is fantastic as Charlie – affable, awkward and unassuming for most of the play, it’s a performance you can’t help but warm to. Esther Stephens and Chris Neels give excellent support - Neels with this usual comic, yet truthful playing, and Stephens’s ever thoughtful mystery girl, provoking a softer side in Charlie.
The characters bring up big ideas and philosophical questions about mortality – what happens after death? – in a very human and deadpan way. Charlie is not keen on the cremation oven – “I’m not a pie”. Awkward and inappropriate black humour is embraced, like Pete’s string of deadly puns.
What I really love about Chris Neels' plays (These are the Skeletons of Us was a definite highlight of last year) is that he writes so well for the stage. There’s an awareness of how much is possible to (simply) achieve in theatre on a shoe string – he pops up with a watering can to make rain, projected photographs movingly evokes Charlie’s life in reflection, fans with red and oranges streamers create fire.
And the ending is emotional, theatrical, and of the most unexpectedly wonderful moments I can remember in a theatre. I was clapping and hollering for some time. Count me as a big fan of The Seven Funerals of Charlie Morris – I can’t wait to see what Chris does next!
The Seven Funerals of Charlie Morris is presented by Elephant Nation and plays at the Basement Studio until 10th March. More details see The Basement.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview review by Stephen Austin
Elephant Nation have also got a really sweet trailer, compulsory watching: