Literary and/or socio-cultural ‘context’ references go with the territory of student work. In Grave Concern, from Gravely Concerned Theatre (University of Cambridge), it’s briefly Samuel Beckett’s How It Is vs. Waiting for Godot. No contest, you might think. Wrong. For the rest, writer/Director Connor Rowlett does not quite put Father Ted and Mrs Brown’s Boys into his script, but it must have been a close call. As it is, it’s Brendan’s ringtone that slays you. Think Gloria Gaynor and 1978.
This is a funny, irreverent, play that opens and closes in Milltown cemetery off the Falls Road in west Belfast. The cemetery is Catholic (and Republican) and fifteen minutes away from the City cemetery, for the most part Protestant and Unionist. There is loose mention—whisht!—of a shared site but old Malachy would rather be dead than…
You get the familiar Irish drift, wink and lilt. Irreligious, probably; unholy, perish the thought!
However, property developers are breaking new ground in Ulster. Real estate acquires a whole new dimension when burial plots are few and ‘Find a Grave.com’ is not far away. Uncle John is keen to end up alongside his pal Dennis but that means no room for Malachy and the wife. John’s brother, Brendan, has their aunt Deidre to consider. To switch off her life-support or not? Joe, at 20, is naturally much more interested in his alluring but astonishingly rude Belgian girlfriend.
Eleven or so short scenes pass in rapid (edited?) succession and—on a small stage with barely room for a table, a few chairs, and John’s wheelchair—the best acting is all about delivery and timing. John, a wickedly amusing Harry Burke, is knowing and provocative. The craic and banter is entertaining in itself but Joe (Paul Storrs) provides a youthful and confident voice with none of the cynical caution of his elders. Olivia O’Connor as his mother, Máiréad, suffers the insufferable Dorothé, with wonderful restraint.
It could—and probably did—go on without end, as the close, when it comes, is abrupt and seems forced. Grave Concern is comic and diverting and would have survived a final absurdist riff from John. Unfortunately, unfairly, the hapless priest reappears, and you just hear the deliberate and risible intonation.