“Does anyone find grief awkward?”, Jack Rooke asks his audience upstairs at the Soho Theatre. It is a mixed reaction: some hands fling up willingly, others like myself volunteer an uncertain arm wiggle in good faith. Truthfully, I was unresolved. Grief is tragic, natural and an individual process; it can manifest in different ways – but awkward? Perhaps that’s because there are certain behavioural patterns we feel obligated to follow, both in coping ourselves and supporting those around us – an expectancy. Jack Rooke handles this matter in a unique manner, using his skills as a stand-up comic to draw from his own past. He combines video footage, storytelling and audience interaction to create what I would describe as less of a show and more of an experience.
The stage is set, remembrance flowers spelling “good grief’” are displayed on the walls, a coffin rests in the centre and the Spice Girls classic ‘Goodbye’ is playing. Jack appears, a mound of curly hair, describing himself as a chubby Sideshow Bob. He is instantly endearing and possesses real vulnerability although he is utterly hilarious. Rooke introduces his ‘Awkwardometer’ (better known as a hand gesture) and demonstrates different levels of awkwardness, providing vivid examples such as Michelle Williams in Destiny’s Child being given a solo line. Pretty darn awkward. Rooke goes beyond stand-up with a highly personal approach, inviting us into his family life through an amusing slideshow of memories. This lulls us into false sense of security, and though inevitably we would be discussing grief at some point, it is a shock when without warning he reveals that his dad died whilst he was taking his GCSEs. We breathe in, unsure of how to react – and there it is. We are witnessing first-hand the awkwardness felt over grief and death that he has been talking about.
We are guided by a timeline of dates following his father’s death as Jack recollects different events that he remembers as significant to his bereavement process. The relationship between grief and food, and how nothing says “sorry for your loss” like a lasagne. Or how the loss of a parent seems to earn you ‘sympathy points’, which entitle you to privileges such as larger portions in the canteen, ‘get out of class’ passes and even free printing credits. He explains the dark irony of buying a dog to fill a void, but finding out that the dog also has cancer. This may appear insensitive, but his brutal honesty touches on well-observed patterns of behaviour that people are often afraid to admit to. He does not pull any punches, but it is funny because it is recognisable.
Though it is a one-man show, the other prominent character involved is his nan, who we fall in love with through a series of documentary-style videos. These capture the relationship between them as they talk about aspects of his dad’s death – though she herself does not like being filmed. Towards the end of the piece, Jack explains that his nan had gone into hospital during a previous run of the show and that she had passed away.
It is strange that whilst the majority of the show is centred around losing his dad, the more expected and imminent loss of a grandparent is what really pushed my emotional capabilities over the edge. Perhaps because of my own relationship with my nan, her passing really touched me and it indeed seemed to resonate with the entire audience. This is, I suppose, the crux of the subject matter as loss is absolutely something everyone will identify and emphasise with.
Rooke finishes by addressing the 2017 welfare reform for bereaved families. This show is part of a wider project to support the bereaved in the UK. At least in a time of great cuts, we can also create some great theatre. I would whole-heartedly recommend this production. It is unconventional in many ways and I’m not sure it will be to everyone’s tastes in its frank and open remarks, but it certainly is to mine. I was captivated the whole way through with his sharp juxtapositions of humour and solemnity – it made me laugh and it made me cry. I recommend grabbing yourself a glass of wine before the show starts though, as you might need it!
Good Grief played at the Soho Theatre until 9 April. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.