Despite the title, the afterlife of Wet Picnic’s curious new show is more like a departure lounge than a horticultural haven. Anxious to make our transition from life to death as smooth as possible, three yellow blazer-clad guides are ready to lead the way – just as soon as we’ve watched the safety video. Warning: there might be turbulence.
This quirky and frequently hilarious look at mortality treats kicking the bucket just like any other minor inconvenience of life. There are forms, box-ticking, even queuing. Wet Picnic show us this process through the character of David Fanshaw, whose untimely demise offers a fairly bumpy take-off into the afterlife. Struck by disaster on his way to a job interview, Viktor Lukawski’s terminally awkward David finds himself in a recruitment process unlike any other, faced with a contract to sign away his own fading life and join the yellow blazer brigade in easing the final journey for other unfortunate souls.
While the plot itself is charming in its eccentricity, the stunning precision of Wet Picnic’s physical comedy is the piece’s chief success. Charlotte Dubery, Gwenaelle Mendonca and Nessa Norich form a strange and hilarious trio of clowning flight attendants, offering ridiculous, blackly comic enactments of various different causes of death, before swiftly and startlingly transforming into a series of figures in David’s life. While many of the laughs arise from Wet Picnic’s wackily heightened aesthetic, there are also moments of sharp observational humour, such as the pitch-perfect embarrassment of the first meeting between David and his future wife.
Perhaps surprisingly given the subject matter, comedy dominates the bulk of the show, but there are also pauses of poignant beauty. The versatile light boxes of Alice Walking’s gorgeously simply design, which form the walls for everything from hospital waiting rooms to nightclub toilet cubicles, also offer one of the show’s most stunning visual images, as a series of bulb flashes punctuate the painful final parting from life. However, the moments of emotional tenderness that break through the laughter, while often moving, feel out of step with the tone that the company have cultivated elsewhere. Despite its wacky charm, Death and Gardening can feel like a show still in the middle of making up its mind, undecided whether to offer a funny or contemplative take on its subject matter, instead settling for both and giving neither quite the conviction it needs.
This sense of indecision extends to the conclusion of the piece, which departs on a slightly flat note. What is seen of the show here is carefully and often beautifully crafted, but for all the polish it still feels somehow unfinished. The abrupt ending – so sudden it’s followed by an uncertain pause – suggests a company full of ideas but unsure of where to go next. Death and Gardening might be funny, charming and gorgeous to look at it, but it’s never clear to what end.