Settling into my seat, I glance at the leaflet which had occupied it moments before. ‘Hartshill Quaker House’, it reads. ‘Meeting of Worship on the occasion of the death of our friend Mr Matthew Chambers’. And so I sat in a Quaker House, attending a memorial meeting, feeling very underdressed.
Mr Chambers is an extremely confused man, a probable dementia-sufferer whose incoherent speech paints an indistinct picture of a full life
The leaflet gently encouraged anyone who felt moved to share a thought or memory of the deceased to take the floor. A young man sitting amongst the audience on one of the onstage seats stood up, shopping bag in hand, and stepped — slowly, purposefully — into the centre of the stage. A smile played across his lips — not the smile of a happy man, but a man for whom ‘hysteria’ has become a baseline; the flickering, fragile smile of someone trying to remember what ‘being OK’ looks like.
This man is Tom, brought to exquisite life by Be Prepared’s writer-performer, Ian Bonar. Tom never knew Mr Chambers; he just happened to answer the phone when the old man repeatedly dialled the wrong number, looking for the funeral director. Mr Chambers, it’s immediately obvious, is an extremely confused man, a probable dementia-sufferer whose incoherent speech paints an indistinct picture of a full life. Tom, standing in the Quaker House, recounts how he began to listen to Mr Chambers. He learned about the older man’s three brothers and five sisters (all now dead), his time fighting in Burma, his early work, and his wife.
As Tom attempts to decipher these jumbled fragments spilling out of a confused mind, he is induced to confront his relationship with his father, who died recently. Tom says he’s fine, but it’s soon apparent that he’s consumed by a gnawing desperation to relive the time he had with his father; time that was not so much lost as thrown away. Old regrets and trivial betrayals — which now seem unforgivable — bludgeon their way to the fore of his mind. He can’t stop thinking about each moment when he wasn’t the son he should have been. If only he’d realised sooner that his dad wouldn’t live forever.
The set is minimal, and there are few props to speak of. The sound and lighting design, though potent, is also rationed. We are left, then, entirely undistracted from Bonar’s virtuoso performance, which moves through anguish, jollity, horror — through the whole confusing gamut of bereavement — with total credibility. It’s a magnetic, unforgettable turn in this sometimes hilarious, often uncomfortable, always gripping portrait of a grief-stricken mind.