Rob Currie’s play, Undertaking, explores the dimensions of grief and loss by blurring the lines between reality, fantasy and memory, examining death as it were from a personal and professional point of view. Undertaking ushers the audience into the backrooms of a funeral parlour and the home of a grieving family, as both prepare for the funeral of murdered local girl Julia. The Macraes are a family struggling to reconcile their grief in the wake of their daughter’s sudden, violent and mysterious death. The Howkins & Son team come face to face with death every day, they have been the “stable minds amidst unstable souls” for years. When they are faced with loss closer to home, they discover that experience doesn’t always lend itself to rationality. Through a series of – and at times surreal – interjecting visions, the play explores the lives and deaths of the customers of Howkins (who are surprising lively dead people). These visions have a degree of ambiguity: are they true memories or the melancholy fantasies of the bereaved?
Lip Theatre’s Undertaking also asked, “How reliable are your memories? How much of memory is wishful thinking?”. Thought-provoking though that may be, I felt that the deliberate blurring of fantasy and reality in the preview performance detracted from one key scene in the second act, the scene of Julia’s death. It left me confused more than reflective, flip-flopping as it did between the past and the present. The emotional turmoil of both moments meshed seamlessly, and the audience’s prior knowledge ensured they were primed with anticipation and absorbed in the action. The tension mounted and the reveal was made … but, I was left feeling a little hollow where I should have felt satisfaction. I couldn’t tell if what I saw was supposed to be real or not. The dialogue suggested that it was a memory warped by desire but the action didn’t support it. Perhaps a few tweaks of lighting, modulation of music or changes in the dialogue’s cadence would have clarified intent. Then again, perhaps I was supposed to be left wondering, as though adrift in the murky waters of grief where questions are left eternally unanswered.
The modest stage at the Student Union set was framed by two traditional coat stands that evoked a sense of coming and going perfectly in-keeping with the theme of life’s transience. A simple table was its focal point and served as a link between the disparate locations of the family home and the mortuary. A quick change of position and the addition of a bowl of flowers suddenly turned the cold, metal slab of the morgue into a warm and lived-in family kitchen. The interactions of grieving mother and wife Shona Macrae and Head Mortician Nathan Black bound the parallel plots together. Both characters were central in their different worlds; both tried to cope with the practicalities and psychological difficulties of death. Eilidh Albert-Recht was outstanding as Shona, a woman struggling to keep herself and her family together. She tackled the role with respect and a nuanced expression of emotion. Also excellent, if perhaps not particularly subtle, was Ewan Gray playing Nathan Black. Ewan’s energy and good comic timing shone through moments of awkward dialogue and lukewarm chemistry, the latter perhaps the result of opening night wrinkles that included absent cast members and poor vocal projection.
Overall Lip Theatre’s Undertaking was a solid exploration of grief and personal connection with interesting narrative devices that allowed the past and present to comment on each other. Though sombre, Undertaking was enriched by flashes of dark humour and tender moments of personal connection that compellingly replicate the see-sawing emotional state of the bereaved.