Review By Regan Baker
Like many others, death is something that has always scared me, but it’s a controversial conversation that we, as a society, often avoid having. I don’t so much mean the typical discussions of ‘is there life after death’, but the subjects a little closer to home. What happens to your body when you die? How will your loved ones’ cope – or more so – will they cope at all? And what happens now? These, and more, are questions explored in this brilliant Queensland story, but as to whether they are answered is completely up to your own interpretation.
Steve never imagined he would end up working in the funeral industry, and in so many ways he wasn’t ready for the life lessons he would learn through death. Return to the Dirt is an emotional rollercoaster based on the true experiences of its playwright, Steve Pirie, who guides us through his time as a funeral director and explores what it truly means to live.
Pirie’s script for Return to the Dirt won the 2020-21 Queensland Premier’s Drama Award and a place in the 2021 program at Queensland Theatre. The brilliance of this play comes not only from the script as a whole, but the performance of Pirie himself as the Narrator. Acting alongside the incredibly talented Mitchell Bourke (acting as his younger self), Pirie takes us on a journey through his life and how he became the man he is today – and wrote the script for the play unfolding before us. His story is deeply honest, moving and a sometimes-comical look at what he learnt through his time in the funeral home and a telltale lesson about the importance of living for today.
As both a playwright and an actor, Pirie is superb. His storytelling is unique in its form and so eloquently delivered that there was never a moment of respite in this two-hour performance. His intertwined appearances throughout the play brilliantly demonstrated the autobiographical nature of the story and showed a comical first-person account of his life’s journey. In what I truly hope is his breakout performance (and his first for Queensland Theatre also), Mitchell Bourke was outstanding. His delivery of a man haunted by the dealings of over 400 deaths was believable beyond no doubt. From his fidgeting and inability to sit still, to the tiredness in his appearance, or the ways in which he snapped at his partner and sprayed the words, “I’m fine,” repeatedly, every element of his performance was delivered with finesse.
Sophie Cox, as Claire, was equally remarkable and her divergence from Steve could be felt in one’s soul as she battled with the heartbreak of seeing him shut down and spiral into depression. Jeanette Cronin delivered an incredible juxtaposition of light-hearted comic relief as well as being an emotional support for Steve in her role as Deb, one of the other funeral directors. Chris Baz, Miyuki Lotz and Cleo Davis were wonderful also and once more presented characters that felt perfectly human in their dealings with death.
The stage design (by Renee Mulder) was possibly the simplest I have ever seen in a Queensland Theatre show, but it was effective in setting the scene and the aesthetic of the story. Her use of a revolving stage was utilized brilliantly in rotating through scenes or bringing in new elements as required and elevated the performance nicely. Ben Hughes, who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite Lighting Designers, once again delivered a beautiful palette to set the mood of Pirie’s story. His lighting was simple but relevant, and the use of softer tones, blackouts and fading light added to the overall design of the show.
With Queensland Theatre’s own Artistic Director, Lee Lewis, at the helm all the technical elements and staging combined nicely to deliver a range of unexpected and powerful emotions. Projections of dates, personal effects and key story elements were used to illicit added emotion and emphasize the importance of one of Greg and Deb’s earlier messages – “Write everything down.” Lewis’ direction of Pirie’s story was very clearly presented and her emphasis on the importance of telling Australian stories was delivered in what can only be described as an incredible performance across the board.
Death is never an easy topic to discuss, and that is just as true for the stage as it is for real life. Return to the Dirt is a powerful story of what it means to live, just as much as it is about what happens when we die. The subject matter may be heavy, and I recommend having a tissue or two at the ready, but I cannot recommend this show more highly. From Boy Swallows Universe just under a month ago, to Return to the Dirt last night, Queensland Theatre has ended 2021 with a double-whammy of high caliber, outstanding performances.