Death is the only truly universal subject. Yet on stage we so often only see it as the customary end to a Shakespearean tragedy or a punch line to a particularly distasteful joke. It is rare that we experience theatre talking about death in a down-to-earth and, well, normal way. This is one of poet Erin Bolens’ great achievements. She declines to use euphemisms and metaphors and instead talks about death in the most direct way possible: by inviting us to our own funeral.
Erin is clearly one of the foremost talents performing in the UK today
Many, if not all of us, will have experienced death at some point in our lives. Yet none of us have experienced death from the other side. Erin presents our own funeral to us and wonders about what kind of coffin we would have, which photo they would pick of us, what’s on the buffet table arranged by Auntie Janet. If you’re curious, she comes to the conclusion that potato salad is too messy; sandwiches and quiches are the safe bet. If all this sounds morbid and macabre, you’d be very wrong. Erin’s very presence is warmth personified. Her rhythmic, poetic speech, full of rhymes and half rhymes, leads you lilting into an open and comforting space. It’s a place where you feel connected with everyone in the audience alongside you.
There are also plenty of moments of genuine laughter and mirth as Erin makes witty asides that would make many a professional stand-up jealous. According to a Co-op survey, the fourth most popular song chosen to be played at a funeral is the Match of the Day theme tune. Her mock emotion as she reached for the tissues had us all rolling with laughter.
Light elements of audience interaction felt inclusive and never intrusive. Asked to think about what song we would pick for our funeral, my neighbour plumped on I’m H-A-P-P-Y. She chose it because it’s how she feels right now, although she was slightly concerned that perhaps her mourners wouldn’t be keen on singing along. This shared moment was one of many which made me smile. Erin’s clever breaking down of the barriers between us as audience members made it easier for us to be more open and vulnerable. Certainly, there were times when plenty of us in the audience were grateful for the darkness in The Warren’s Theatre Box and coveted the box of tissues on stage.
A very honourable mention goes to Sam Lunn, who accompanied much of Erin’s speech with his subtle acoustic guitar playing. His original song, which closed the performance, allowed him to finally showcase his rich and powerful voice. This moving rendition ensured that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
There are so many clever elements in this show. The way the programme came designed as a funeral’s Order of Service – I particularly loved the line “flowers are not necessary on this occasion and would be a little unnerving to be honest”. How Erin never veers into sickly sweet sentimentality, despite that being the easy route out. The charming staging, with boxes, light boxes and a dangling light bulb. How the character of ‘Dog-less Dave’ starts off as a joke, but later on his story ends in poignancy. I could go on.
Erin is clearly one of the foremost talents performing in the UK today. Amiable, intelligent and funny, the entire audience was enchanted and no doubt would have gladly spent the rest of the afternoon in her presence.