Review By Lisa Lanzi
I wasn’t sure what to expect with this one… but a reasonable crowd-of-a-certain-age turned up to the Dunstan Playhouse at 11am, some even inspired to imbibe a cheeky sparkling red (all power to them) while I held on to my soy latte.
Kim Lewis, a NIDA graduate and performer who has graced TV screens in many Australian productions since 1982, is a delightful presence onstage. A lone figure behind a lectern delivering a wordy, witty monologue that borders on eighty minutes - an enviable artistic feat, despite the very occasional verbal stumble.
Lewis’ character Grace Stevens is an assistant at a family-run funeral home in an undisclosed small Australian town and has a tender, almost brotherly relationship with her older boss, Mr Beebe - of Beebe and Sons, although there are none of the latter. She tells him almost everything about what goes on in her life, including the saucy bits. Grace manages to groom her professional persona to be appropriately kind, sensitive and helpful to the mourners while dispensing morning tea and consolation, even when proceedings get hilariously out of hand. I love the contrasting ‘states’ of Grace, presented here with compassion and humour. On the one hand we see a woman whose life has stalled at the point five years ago when her husband died suddenly, yet she manages her professional status with efficiency and aplomb, perhaps too successfully, while veiling the deeper issues around her grief. Grace is still discovering her own inner workings with regard to the past and the life she now finds herself living in opposition to the possibility of moving forward to greet new adventures and the creation of new memories.
As the layered narrative unfolds, Lewis gives life to a parade of colourful characters with merely altered and truly excellent vocal tone and accent, proximity to the microphone, and subtle physical and gestural shifts. The characters themselves have their own personal trajectories as the stakes get more urgent and the Dom Perignon is liberally poured. It was almost as much fun to experience the audience’s enchanted reactions as watch Lewis morph into the various states of being. The young assistant ‘Daisy’ is a rollicking vehicle for some hilarious digs at the differences between Catholics and Methodists, while’ The Mortician’ is rendered as a slightly macabre, well-meaning but socially awkward bloke. Another finely presented character is Hal Samson with his new-age approach to funerals and goal of putting the ‘fun’ back into FUNerals.
The sharp-witted writing from Angus FitzSimons is joyous and peppered with absurdist, sardonic humour. Each figure in the tale is enlivened through clever, flowing prose and not one of them escapes without some form of mostly good-natured mocking. Hal’s goofy, ‘chocolate box’ aphorisms are hilarious but in a final twist, the audience is able to see from whence they appeared and the man is revealed to have true depth.
FitzSimons also directs the production with a deft hand, but I suspect the actor and director worked well as a synergistic and well-oiled team. There is but a simple cyclorama, a bare floor plus lectern downstage and some gentle lighting with three pauses for the actor to regroup and sip water from, appropriately, a teacup. There is no added frippery and the text works well within this elegant and simple staging.
With both irreverent and heart-warming themes, Mourning Tea inspires thought about life, happiness, death, and funerals. The work is essentially a love story with farcical anecdotes about funerals, misplaced bodies, kismet, the unexpected stages of life… and champagne.
Totally worth a visit to the theatre, though I think it would also make a gorgeous filmed monologue, along the lines of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads.