DramaLondonReview

Grave – Hope Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Will Osbon

Will Osbon’s 85-minute one-act play Grave is a perplexing piece of theatre, ostensibly the story of a city lawyer who takes on the role of a gravedigger while the latter goes to run an errand, the show grasps at meanings and references that continually slip away just as they are about to make sense of this assortment of ideas. Staged at the Hope Theatre for two nights, Grave uses absurdist tropes but is never clear what the underlying messaging ought to be.

A tally chart on the auditorium door tells you whether Sylvie or Billy will ‘die tonight’ based on a vote apparently taken previously. It is never explained that those are the names of the actors or why their death and not their characters are being used. This should provide a driver for Grave, giving Osbon the chance to tip the scales as the audience learns more about this strange central interaction and the clouding of the lawyer’s mind as he becomes embroiled in the physical effect of digging a grave. Yet there is so little substantial conversation or any sense of inevitability that it is easy to forget about the chart until the end of the play.

In between, Osbon stages a series of bizarre interactions in the graveyard plagued by ‘strange lost souls that torment the newcomer’s mind’ according to the show synopsis including a beekeeper, an arrogant medical lawyer and a drunk teenage girl. The conversations are indeed odd but often incoherent leading to dramatic exchanges, yet few building themes or musings on the nature of life, death, loneliness and the professional impact of the gravedigger that should emerge from these interactions. William Faulkner is referenced a few times and almost everyone asks how much the gravedigger earns but Osbon doesn’t draw these strands together in any form of commentary, political or humanitarian statement which often underpins absurdist theatre.

The actors – Sylvie Agnello and Billy Truscott – equally struggle to draw anything concrete from the random occurrences, often over-amplifying in the small space which only adds to the intangibility of the text. Truscott does well to show his character becoming increasingly detached from reality and obsessed with physical possession of the hole he is digging, while Agnello enjoys the opportunity to play a range of creations that are distinct in their construction, but the pitch needs to come down a little to allow any connecting feelings of paranoia, tension and anxiety to grow in their place.

There is a basis here for something, but Grave might be better served by simplifying the premise and the staging, removing the messy design and the projected quotes that add very little, even cutting most of the characters and focusing instead on the gravedigger and lawyer alone for 45-60 minutes to explore all the concepts and morality emerging from their contrasting lives and potential deaths. If Sylvie or Billy have to die, then this is where that decision can really build momentum and give this play the profundity it seeks.

Runs until 22 April 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Perplexing

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3 Comments

  1. I actually disagree I loved the set design! And while I do agree on the over complex story I think the actors did a great job with the material! I was particularly impressed with the range of accents from the female actor, and the guy really succeeded in making me uncomfortable with his mental decline. Truthfully it reminded me of the kind of play I would have had to analyse at A-level, and in that way the confusing nature left a lot to be interpreted.

  2. I couldn’t disagree more with this review. It begins with stating that while Grave uses absurdist tropes, it is never clear what the underlying message is. I think this is wrong, the play from the very beginning, and throughout, with the help of its projected quotes (which you dismiss as adding very little) sets the tone for what I believe is one of the two main underlying messages, I can’t remember the exact quotes but they go something along the lines of “the demon providing the shovel” and that everyday “we did our grave a little deeper”. One of the two primary themes I believe the play explores is the absurd contrast between the human drive to survive and the frequency with which we all seem to do things that bring about our deaths quicker, that we’re all constantly carrying out actions that dig our grave a little faster and “a little deeper”. This is referenced throughout the play through the motif of the cigarette and the plight of the drunkard, both presented in down beats – slower, quieter parts of the play where the characters are often seated. This is juxtaposed heavily with the final fight scene as both characters engage in a struggle to survive.

    The second major theme is a psychological critique of capitalism – the “demon the provides the shovel”. This play is rife with symbols and dialogue that play upon this theme, potentially to the point of oversaturation. These include but aren’t limited to the following: acts of apparent kindness are reduced to transactions mediated through the transfer of honey. The relationship between proletariat and bourgeoisie is briefly explored in the beekeeper sequence – power is attributed to the queen bee by the male character, this is then dismissed by the beekeeper who reminds him who actually has control of the means of production. These are the most explicit. There are more implicit references, although some are lacking in their focus. The mother and her isolation due to her children’s prioritisation of accumulation as “they’re out getting things”, the final lawyer character – who serves as a welcome foil to the male lawyers dissatisfaction with his profession expressed earlier in the play – works in medical law and revels in the privatisation and objectification of the human body.

    While you can certainly level the criticism that as a critique of capitalism the play is quite surface level with anything deeper having to be drawn out through interpretation and thereby not necessarily intentional, credit has to be given to the selection of symbols by the writer through which any interpretation is made possible. In fact, this is where I believe the plays intangibility, which this review admonishes, is actually one of its strongest aspects. Moreover it would be difficult in such a short play which is so semiotic in nature to give a more in depth critique. For example, having not read Faulkner, I can’t speak to the intertextuality of the play and whether that deserves merit, however the symbol of the fish it introduced immediately made me think of this quote by American feminist Catherine MacKinnon: “All women live in sexual objectification the way fish live in water.”, if you take the structure of that quote and replace ‘all women’ with ‘everyone’ and ‘sexual objectification’ with ‘capitalism’ then you arrive at what I believe is the underlying absurdity of the play, we cannot exist in our current state outside of this system and therefore just as the mother in the play states we are forced to “learn to swim”.

    I believe that the themes of “the nature of life, death, loneliness” that this review focuses on are all secondary to the two above and I think instead that the weakest part of the play for me was definitely the ending when the gravedigger returns. I believe it’s too long and too expository and that you could cut the majority of the dialogue without losing anything, in fact I think the majority of the monologues in the play could be shorter.

    I’d also like to add that this review doesn’t account for the comic elements of this tragicomedy enough, which I believe were balanced quite skillfully by the actors, whose perfomances on the whole were extremely impressive. I don’t agree with the idea that Sylvie’s pitch needed to come down, I think it was necessary for the dynamic of straight man Vs strange/unsettling/sometimes slapstick that Billy and Sylvie shared that seemed to reverse as the play went on, and also that her pitch did come down when it was necessary in her role of the mother where she truly showcased her range.

    I’d give this play 3.5 stars out of 5 rather than 2. It’s imaginative, funny and poignant, and it is very clear throughout that a lot of passion was put into it at all stages. William Osbon deserves a lot of praise, the direction was fantastic, the creativity with which he executes the play is apparent from the second you walk in, the writing, while at times too expository, displays a genuine affinity for utilising imagery and sign to convey a message and the ability to balance it with comedy.

  3. This seems a bit brutal as a whole – audience seemed to enjoy it, few good laughs, person I was sat next to jumped out her skin at one point! Discussed it quite a lot in the bar after, was a good evening. Not perfect, but an ambitious, fun and surprising first project. Wait to raise up new theatre guys LOL

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