Two bobbies are scooping up a severed head from the railway tracks in 1970’s Manchester, a little girl’s frozen body is being revived in present-day London, while – in a distant future of death-on-demand – two friends sit and wait for the life-extinguishing light that will give them sweet, temporary release from an antiseptic existence. Over the course of three interweaving duologues, Unlimited Theatre’s Am I Dead Yet? examines the shifting nature of humankind’s relationship to the cold, hard reality of our encroaching demise.
On the face of it, this make it all sound rather heavy. It’s not. There are songs and silly dance routines to keep us from sinking into the oblivion of shared mortality. Plus, there is a determined lightness to Chris Thorpe and Jon Spooner’s writing and performance, as they scuttle onto the stage in white pants while gyrating to a schlocky hair-metal soundtrack. We’re not supposed to take any of this too seriously. It’s better to laugh in the face of certain death than furrow up our brow and worry about that chesty cough that’s been niggling away for the past month.
As we’re lulled into into their warm embrace by the tongue-in-cheek repartee, Thorpe and Spooner pepper the narrative with musical interludes, skits and public health demonstrations. It is the show’s DIY choppiness that lends it a skittering, improvisational tone, although things are often at their strongest and most entertaining when the performers allow themselves room to unfold the narratives in dialogue with each other. It’s in the delicate stories of death, rebirth and revival that the company reach beyond the starkness of the production to touch upon our own fears and apprehensions of that ‘unknown country’. These moments linger long after the lights go dark.
What’s more, it’s in the productions’ quiet moments that Thorpe and Spooner allow the gallows humour to give way to something altogether more poignant and penetrating: a handshake between two police-officers silently wrestling with their own impermanence, the stoicism of a mother struggling to comprehend the inner-workings of the machines keeping her daughter alive, and the all-too-brief imaginings of a future society in which temporary death can be achieved by the push of a button.
At fifty-five minutes, Am I Dead Yet? gallops along at a deft clip. It’s a testament to Thorpe and Spooner’s ability as performers that despite a slew of technical hiccups in the performance I attended, the pace rarely slackens and the energy never dips. Still, unmoored from the Edinburgh Fringe, Am I Dead Yet? risks stretching itself too thin across a modest running time and three interlocking stories. As a result, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Unlimited Theatre have accumulated a loose collection of arresting ideas that are still in search of a form.
Am I Dead Yet? is on until 18 November 2017 at the Soho Theatre. Click here for more details.