Thursday, 17 February 2022

REVIEW: Dead Good at the Theatre Royal Winchester

Vamos Theatre and modern mask theatre was new to me. I had seen the Greek classic, The Oresteia at the National Theatre in 1981 with a large chorus of masked actors so I knew it has a long deep heritage. I was therefore intrigued to catch this latest production, Dead Good on a regional tour of small venues and the promotional video of the four performers in their slightly oversized masks certainly creates a sense of the lively amusing cartoonish show. However, the topics they currently choose to explore using the technique are far from this image. Their previous show, A Brave Face dealt with Post Traumatic Stress after the Afghanistan war and this latest show is about learning to enjoy your “end of life” experience after a terminal diagnosis from medical consultants. If it was a TV show it would come with a pre-show warning and post-show reference to a helpline for anyone affected by the issues it raises.

It is clear that the development of these shows is based on some strong research and this programme is dedicated to Dave, Pete and Nick, palliative care patients who helped in the research but have now all sadly passed on. That research shows in the various internal scenes set in the Hospice and Medical rooms; for example, when one character has a catheter fitted or in the general care given by staff in Hospices. For anyone who has experienced a loved one or close friend in these emotional and challenging circumstances the story will resonate powerfully and bring back strong memories. The central message of the show about friendship in these circumstances and living the remaining life to the full are powerful messages to share as we all face these challenges in our lives. 

The after-show chat was perhaps more interesting than the performance itself as the cast of four discussed the mask techniques, the show’s development, and their ethos. The obvious limitations of the masks where the actions are played out in mime to a pre-recorded soundtrack with a fixed facial expression are said to be compensated for by the engagement of the audience in watching each small adjustment to their bodies and rather than acting to an audience the cast feel they are engaging with the minds of the audience who are interpreting these movements. Judging by the unanimous supportive comments from the third of the audience who stayed for the chat, this engagement was very successful with a large proportion of the audience. 

The story revolves around three men who are given a terminal diagnosis and therefore the outcome is clear from the start, the story is about how they make that final journey together. One dies early on but the other two, Bob and Bernard (played by Alan Riley and James Greave both who have worked with masks for many years), form a friendship with a shared interest in motor cars. Much of the lighter side of this friendship is shown through projected films and stills of their adventures, although their visit to The Ritz is played out on stage. The other parts are played by Bidi Iredale and Radhika Aggarwal which involved some quick costume and mask changes behind the simple three flat sets. There are gentle laughs, but the dominant sense is sadness and the hangdog expressions on the masks reinforce that feeling of impending doom. We do understand the friendship that develops, and the care given to them and connect with the situation, but I never connected with the characters emotionally as some in the audience did.

This was developed pre-pandemic and many of us are still not ready for serious plays or powerful emotional messages. I still want my theatre visits to be fun escapism and uplifting as in a musical and comedies to take my mind away from the stresses and worries of a depressing daily news agenda. I went without any pre-perceived ideas having not read the blurb but soon found it hard to engage and concentrate on the seventy-minute show. However, if you read the blurb and are still intrigued this is a fascinating demonstration of mask theatre. Its message of living life to the full in these circumstances does resonate and the shared experience of Live theatre should be part of that life. Don’t be put off by mask-wearing yourself in a theatre, book to go to your local theatre but check the promotional blurb first to make sure it is a topic that you will enjoy  and that you are ready to be reminded in this case of the loved ones you have lost or your own eventual demise.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Row G | Price of Ticket: £20
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