Grave Concern: review
It had me dying laughing, so.
Grave Concern is a piece of new writing, produced by the Fletcher Players and written by Connor Rowlett, who clearly decided he wanted to take on more than one person should be able to handle (co-director, photographer, publicity designer, rehearsal schedule) and yet handled it all nonetheless. I went in expecting a cross between a Northern Irish Father Ted and One Foot in the Grave – and that is not what I got.
Somehow, it was surprising to me that a show called 'Grave Concern' has such a preoccupation with death. The concern is that of the two remaining graves in a local Belfast cemetery. A claim is made on them by two people: John, a foulmouthed chainsmoking motivational speaker, the brother of Rory Russell's excellently absent-minded Brendan, whose wife is Máiréad; and Malachy, who is Máiréad's elderly father and wants the graves for him and his wife. The play opens at John's best friend Dennis's funeral – John wants to be buried beside him; Malachy and his wife don't want to be buried with strangers. The play revolves around death, cemeteries, old age, and solid Northern Irish craic.
Standout performances came from just about everyone – it is ridiculously, seamsplittingly funny. Particularly worthy of note though are Calum Macleod's absurd priest, played with perfect vocal irregularities; Daniel Quigley's cane-wielding Malachy, whose elderly irritation perhaps precipitates the play's very unexpected ending (I shall go no further); and especially Paul Storrs as Joe, who was an incessant delight to watch. His easy, charming portrayals of a bored teenager, an apologetic boyfriend, a defender of social justice, and a young man burdened by unexpected grief, are all captivating to watch, and he interacts wonderfully with every character he speaks to.
Repetition is an important characteristic of the show – in the patterned ridiculousness of the priest's speech, or the unexpectedly frequent use of the word derogatory, we find a comfort and solace also provided by the domesticated setting. The presence of that word 'derogatory' is important: as well as being primarily focused on death, it also deals with several forms of discrimination, touching on racism, homophobia, disability, with even a brief mention of the divide between Protestantism and Catholicism in Ireland.
The discussion between Joe and his parents about the colour of his girlfriend's skin (following an exquisitely awkward "But where are you from?" conversation) is a perfect expression of shifting generational views without being patronising or preachy. As someone who identifies as disabled, I also really appreciated that John is both disabled and a bit of a bastard. Far too often, disabled characters are portrayed as saintly martyrs who can do no ill, or as those redeemed by their disability. John is not one of these, and it is so refreshing to have a legitimate portrayal of a genuine character who happens to be disabled, rather than it serving as a defining characteristic of who they are.
There are odd moments of clunkiness in the dialogue, as can only be expected of new writing – it has not gone through the process of finessing, cutting down, and editing that a professionally produced script would have done. Two conversations at Dennis's wake, where the other characters stand around miming speech for the entire scene, do seem awkward – but are understandable in the context of staging and scene-setting. The Grave Concern team make brilliant use of the set of the current main show, Wild Honey, working around it in a pleasingly accommodating fashion, and at times even incorporating it.
There are also some issues with lighting, especially in split-scenes with two alternating conversations. But these are minor quibbles – as both audience and actors warm up to the play, we become enveloped in this world of cosy kitchens and drizzly graveyards, familial disputes and genuine familial warmth.
The way in which the play ends is both unexpected and somehow inevitable, just as death is (however, the final scene is genuinely completely unexpected and absolutely hilarious). There is a beautiful circularity in the opening and closing moments of the play, and I could discuss in great depth how the play is an extended metaphor for the circle of life – but instead I will end here, and tell you to go and book tickets for a play that made me laugh so much I was still chuckling on my walk home in the snow.