“Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true,” sang Monty Python at the end of Life of Brian. “You’ll see it’s all a show, keep ’em laughin’ as you go! Just remember that the last laugh is on you.”
Perhaps something along these lines was on the mind of Tim Miles, a friend of Ugly Bucket theatre company, who – facing a terminal diagnosis – asked the group to create a show to perform at his memorial service. While Miles is far from unique in wishing for humour and energy to mark his departure from this mortal coil, he may be the only one to have commissioned a bespoke clowning show, which has been refined and expanded over the last two years from its original ten minutes to an hour, which is now being performed to live audiences for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
Good Grief, which combines clowning and other physical techniques with audio recordings of people discussing their experiences of grief, explores the omnipresence of death and the challenges that come with the loss of a loved one. In keeping with its subject matter, it is overwhelming, bewildering and sometimes inaccessible. But it’s also full of humour, which makes it an enjoyable watch – though for many viewers, especially those who have experienced a recent loss, it’s likely to be an uncomfortable sort of enjoyment.
The show kicks off with the cast of five – who wear extremely smudged clown make-up throughout – donning white sunglasses to dance to an upbeat electro track. If Monster Mash had been released on 12” in the early 90s, perhaps this would have been one of the remixes on the B-side. As with much of the other imagery, it’s left to the audience to identify these characters, which reappear throughout the show, but a recording used in a later scene compares dying to going to a huge party – one of several ideas introduced to explore the difficulty of conceiving of death for those still alive.
The action then moves into one of the most visually arresting images in the show, in which one cast member lies semi-cocooned in a red sheet held up by the others, as a baby about to make its traumatic exit from the womb – the first “death” every single one of us experiences. This is followed by a rapid series of darkly funny vignettes, tracing the journey through childhood and youth, with each moment a reminder that death is never far away. This section is brilliantly executed and funny on several levels, and if there’s a criticism of the show to be made, it is that it doesn’t consistently achieve this level of theatrical panache.
A number of other sequences nicely bring together absurd humour with pathos, but sometimes could be crisper – such as one in which a dying patient chooses to hedge their bets on the afterlife by summoning a variety of religious and spiritual leaders, including a Jedi master. Different people’s tastes will vary, but the erratic mix of styles is likely to mean that for most viewers, some bits land better than others. But then, the form fits the message – grief is a messy business after all.
Good Grief ran at HOME from 11th-13th November. It tours the UK until 15th January. More info here.