Review: A Wake in Progress, VAULT Festival

I want to talk about death.

Before you resign yourself to this being all doom and gloom, it’s not. Death is going to happen to everyone, of course; no one lives forever. But does dying have to be sad?

Part of Let’s Talk at the VAULT Festival with Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, this is what A Wake in Progress asks its audience in a funny and heart-wrenching 45 minutes.

Partially written – effectively so by Joel Samuels – and partially improvised based on each night’s audience, A Wake in Progress explores the impending, and very certain, death of one of the characters.

Comprised of a cast of five, any one of the actors could be chosen to play the dying character – randomly picked by an audience member who has no clue as to the weight of their choice (on my night, the show was cast off an audience member choosing a number between 1 and 1000).

My show told the story of Daffy, a 29-year-old woman with an terminal illness, who decides she wants to stop her treatment and focus on a specific item on her bucket list – to learn how to do a backflip (another audience suggestion, given with no context of the role it would play in the show) – an endeavour she calls “Topsy Turvy til I Die”. We watch as she tells her girlfriend, best friend, and brother of her decision. It’s difficult for them to watch someone close to them resolve themselves to death, and eventually ask for them to come to a dress rehearsal of their own funeral. It is heart-breaking at times, but it is also incredibly touching.

The narrative is broken up by moments of audience interaction; injections of levity that lighten the mood without detracting from the story. Within a ten-minute period, the audience on the night I saw the show went from laughing and drinking prosecco, to crying, to singing along with the Beatles on a ukulele. And somehow, it doesn’t feel unnatural to do that. The show is delivered in a way that makes it feel like a completely cohesive experience, despite the numerous changes throughout.

The members of Fine Mess Theatre have an incredible connection; one that I can only imagine permeates through every permutation of this show. It’s worth seeing this show multiple times just to experience each new cast configuration.

In fact, it is worth seeing this show multiple times for a multitude of reasons. The parts that are pre-written are relatable and poignant without being overly preachy. Samuels’ script is a well-articulated undertaking (pardon the pun) of death: it retains the inherent sombre nature of dying while delivering punches of humour and heartfelt strength.

The audience are invited to be part of an intimate group, almost like family themselves, along with the characters onstage. And with the changeable nature of the show, each gathering of people has experienced their own journey with the characters, created by its own consensus. A Wake in Progress is a truly special show that doesn’t shy away from the reality of death, but instead portrays it in all its glory and all its tragedy.

Don’t let the topic put you off. You may shed a few tears, but I promise it will be worth it.

A Wake in Progress is playing the VAULTS Festival until February 10. For more information and tickets, see the VAULTS Festival website.