The Death Show, The DOOR, Birmingham REP

Writers: Antonia Beck and Lucy Nichols

Director: Bernadette Russell

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Time for the Grim Reaper to have a Grin Reaper make-over. A show that aims to explore humanity’s slipping on its own banana-skin of solipsism. It carries well with self-parody in the earlier part of the show – a hers & hearse cortège through the scythe-severing ages of humanity’s inevitable appointment with Death.

Writer/actors, Antonia Beck and Lucy Nicholls, self-confessed ‘thanatophobes’ (fear of death) aim to de-stigmatise the boo! in the Death taboo and shoo away the skeletal cobwebs of our sepulchral neuroses. Is cremation a burning ambition or just a matter of grave doubts? Will nothing become of our lives like the leaving of it? Is Death just Nature’s way of saying slow down? They achieve much entertainingly but not always convincingly.

An episodic sketch show that eventually becomes sketchy opens with a suitably gallow-humoured parody of clichéd funeral obituaries where the pair up the ante with gratuitously exaggerated life-time achievements. Inevitably, and cruelly, Robbie William’s Angels de rigour-mortis plays over the PA. A multi-prop death-sized coffin provides a variety of rôle-play scenarios ranging from a propped-up projection-screen to a surreal spoof vignette of a smoky pulp-fiction Forties ‘Gumshoe’ private-eye. Much sharper is Nicholl’s deliciously over-hammed mime framed in a standing coffin as Beck recites an obituary of her attributes.

They seek guidance and therapy through a sequence of snake-oil Aussie charlatans and a Scout-hut New Age nutcase called Anubis who gestures them to seek rebirth through ‘The Portal’ – the kitchenette door reimagined as a plywood vagina. Again, thoroughly entertaining.

The mood shifts as Nicholls and Beck take us by our vital glands and lead us through the shrieks and blunders of our existential angsts. Two things guaranteed we can never escape – Death and after-midnight dodgy taxis. If we can’t reshuffle off our mortal coils we can at least die trying in the attempt.

They present a touching tableau of their dressing a corpse in preparation for burial followed by a pathology of the incremental decay of the body following death. Their visits to a hospice, noble in its sincerity, elicits little more than a clichéd sketch involving a wise-woman who might just have the answer to the purpose of Life and Death’s meaning. Not quite BlackAdder’s encounter with The Wise Woman.

Dicing with Death for comedic effect or moral allegory has iconic precedents with the bar set very high. It’s A Wonderful LifeBill & Ted’s game of Cluedo, The Life Of Brian crucifixion scene, not least John Cleese’s pulpit harangue at Graham Chapman’s memorial service. Tough to follow.

Death Show is curate’s egg showcase of indisputable talent, wry verve and fragmented, caustic observational edge that loses its sense of originality, direction and pace as the show becomes more self-referential and introspective. The epilogue/homily that – in the end just makes the most of the small, precious things in Life, you’re only here once – is admirable if hardly epiphanic. This is tweely underlined with the pair projecting ‘selfies’ of themselves nose-splodging ice-creams earlier in the day and disco dancing their cares away.

Runs until 27 January 2018 | Image: Graeme Braidwood

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Death - with a sting

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