How do write a comedy show about death and bereavement?
Jack Rooke, would like people to talk and be more open about grief. This was the resounding message of his show Good Grief. Loss can leave people unable to know what to say but that silence only adds to the distress as the person grieving comes to feel that they may become known just as the person who has lost a loved one.
It was, what seems to have been a serendipitous conversation with a Liverpudlian lady from the Arts Council, that brought the incarnation that we saw on stage at Live Theatre to fruition. We were informed by Jack during the Post Show Talk that Good Grief started out as a documentary to be made by Jack and his Nan Sicely. As money ran out though, the Arts Council stepped in because, as the Liverpudlian lady put it, they wanted to fund people like Jack to ‘make stuff that matters’.
I wasn’t sure how Jack might arrive on stage. It was set with two wreaths spelling out the name of the show, an empty chair and a coffin. Hanging above was a big screen. Those of us of a certain age will remember the TV test card. There it was on the screen, only the picture in the middle was of, I assume, Jack when he was a little boy with his Dad. For me, that set an affectionate tone because when I’m reminded in that way of the things of our childhood I begin to remember the other joys of childhood.
Jack bounded on stage and began to introduce himself. The expectations for the show were set out. There would be an awkward-o-meter just to let us know when we were going into uncomfortable territory. We had the warning that things could become super awkward. He was going to talk about grief, after all.
This was lovely endearing humour that had me chortling away. The test card disappeared, other pictures appeared and Jack shared with us the memories of his life, and there we were, flicking through the family album and reminiscing. I liked that his Dad, as a Black Cab driver, knew all the routes around London and where not to change stops on the Underground. That Jack’s mother would come to be known as ‘Tickety Boo’ throughout a holiday abroad because of miscommunication at check in, but in not wanting to offend, didn’t correct this. And who knew that Theresa May could sound so much like Tresemme (say it quickly and out loud- it does) and that it could cause such confusion. For me, this is where the humour lay, in these wonderful little quirks that the people we love have.
Just as we were all comfortably laughing, with a stark announcement Jack told us that at the age of fifteen his Dad died. From that point on the show oscillated between wonderful comedic anecdotes and the brutal realities of bereavement. I guess, though, that’s what grief does; it catches us out at those most mundane moments when up till then we thought we were getting along.
There were brutally honest moments and heart wrenchingly poignant moments. Jack divulged the extent to which he went to remain connected to his Dad. He would ring his number occasionally until one night he discovered it was disconnected.
I wonder now, whether these are the things that help in grief, allowing yourself to hold onto memories, to remain connected, and allowing yourself to miss someone. Of course, a show called Good Grief could not be complete without cake, which was generously handed around the audience. A reminder of the things we do when we have no words but want to say we care.
It struck me as I watched this that it was so much more than a comedy show. To me it had maintained elements of documentary. It was provoking questions about bereavement and how best to deal with it. It was also though, a celebration of the people in Jack’s life and, I guess in that respect, a celebration of life.
This was a wonderful show. Genuinely and effortlessly endearing, funny and truthful (well apart from, apparently, the bit about the dog).
Jack gave his insights into dealing with grief and summed up happiness in three words: we before me. A sentiment to live by?
He mentioned that he is hoping to return to the Live Theatre. I hope he does and hoorah for Liverpudlian ladies who like stuff that matter.
Valerie Speed, Guest Blogger