TW: Terminal illness, Suicide
I really didn’t expect to laugh so much at a play about cancer.
Bryony Lavery’s Last Easter manages to make a story about terminal illness heartwarming. Tonally spot-on, it deals with heavy themes of grief, suicide and religion through a warm lens of theatricality and friendship.
Last Easter follows four friends on a trip to Lourdes, France – the so-called city of miracles. Lighting designer June (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) finds out she has secondary cancer and her friends, drag singer Gash (Peter Caulfield), prop maker Leah (Jodie Jacobs) and actress Joy (Ellie Piercy), cling on to the hope of the impossible and take her on one last holiday. This is a show about theatre people told in a way that embraces their theatricality: the characters leap around the stage, burst into song, break down in tears, harmonise with each other, tell in-jokes, and generally behave in the kind of extravagant, chaotic way theatre people are known to do. In a space where the audience are ‘theatre people’ themselves, there’s a feeling of affection not only between the characters themselves but between everyone in the room.
Lavery’s script moves seamlessly between humour and honesty. Despite the almost bare stage, the script is vivid: a scene in which the characters describe the crowds of hopelessly ill people at Lourdes stands out in my memory as breathtakingly clear. The piece is cleverly structured: the two acts are exactly the right level of different, and several recurring motifs and themes – of religion, of sexuality, of light, and more specifically, of Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ – are used to skilfully tie the narrative together.
As a story of friendship, the play relies on the relationships being believable – all four actors do an excellent job, with the friendship between Leah (Jacobs) and Gash (Caulfield) being particularly convincing. Piercy as Joy is the comic stand-out, and while Agyei-Ampadu has – interestingly – less to work with, her performance as June remains strong at the heart of the piece.
Tinuke Craig’s direction is simple but hugely effective: the play is presented in the round and the actors move around on office chairs. This adds to the sense that this is a show crafted by and about theatre people – their creativity, their resourcefulness. Craig also brings out the friendships in the script through physical touch, which feels even more powerful and joyous in our current climate. The staging goes hand in hand with the lighting design: Elliot Griggs creates magic from simple fairy lights, with one scene where the friends lie looking at the night sky in France standing out as especially visually beautiful.
Last Easter isn’t perfect: some of the jokes begin to tire slightly over the course of the two-hour run time, and at times the comedic handling of sexuality – especially Gash’s relationship with hook-up culture – feels slightly out of date. In addition to this, there are moments where the exploration of themes such as religion, and the character development of June in particular, could push slightly further; while it makes sense from a storytelling perspective, a little more time dedicated to getting to know June would make her illness far more emotionally impactful.
I think the reason I am able to laugh so much at a play about cancer is that Last Easter isn’t really about cancer. It’s about what theatre people do when faced with tragedy and, more broadly, it’s about theatre itself: the love, the resourcefulness, the crying, the drama, the creativity, the laughter, the dancing, the singing, the affection. All of it.
Last Easter is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 7 August. For more information and tickets, see the Orange Tree Theatre’s website.