How well do we know the people we think we know? Not very well, if you believe this comedy by Eric Chappell, the author whose best-known work is Rising Damp. Like that TV show, Wife After Death has its moments of farce but relies for its laughs on a lot of very clever dialogue and smart one-liners from characters who are caricatures, but only to the point where they remain believable.
The central character spends the first act in a coffin and the second as a pile of ashes: the late comedian, David Thursby. Gathered to say goodbye to him are his wife, his scriptwriter, his agent and the wives of the last two. They each present a picture of the dear (?) departed and their relationship with him, but the arrival of an unexpected guest leads to revelations that those pictures range from the hypocritical to the delusional.
The major role is the scriptwriter, Harvey Barrett. To play this energetic, wise-cracking, irreverent, cynical, sometimes tactless character, Mick Wright discovers his inner David Jason: not a bad model, and it creates an outstanding performance. There is subtlety in the way that the confidence of the knockabout clown of act 1 is replaced by a touching vulnerability and a reluctance to face reality as the play progresses, but what emerges at the end is a more serene and more likeable figure.
Mick works particularly well with Sarah Vandervelde, playing his wife, Vi. Placid and apparently submissive even, she is in fact able to handle the mercurial Harvey quite easily but it would upset the equilibrium of their relationship if she made it too obvious. It is another first-rate performance that conveys the nuances of the character very well.
In the role of David’s widow, Laura, Judy Harris enjoys the chance to put on airs and graces and to make herself the centre of attention, and does so most effectively. As the agent, Kevin Prewitt, Steve James gives a very believable interpretation of a conventional person who is bewildered by the weird events unfolding around him and is largely unable to cope with them. His wife, Jane, is a fairly thankless role which consists mainly of conveying varying degrees of distress, but Jane Wright makes as much of it as anyone could. Denise King plays Kay, the late guest and figure from David’s past, with an impudent confidence and one can well see why he fell for her.
It is not a play that is going to win any prizes for its depth, but it is skilfully written and very competently directed by Steve Watton. My heart always sinks when the set includes a sofa placed squarely downstage centre, facing the audience, as there is always the risk of characters getting stuck on it, but that trap is avoided for the most part.
On the opening night, a very appreciative audience was chortling from the start – some of the laughter being a little edgy when it was at jokes about death – and if there is a criticism of the first night, it is that some lines were lost because the actors did not always wait for the laughs. But the KCA Players do wonders with some fairly basic facilities at Kinson Community Centre, and this production keeps up their high standard.
Future performances: 24-26 November at 7.30.