Written by Deborah Morgan
Directed by Paul Goetzee
Royal Court Studio, Royal Court Theatre
Till Saturday 19th October 2019
Reviewed by Sandra Gibson
There’s a Corpse in the Living Room….
The initial impact of Deborah Morgan’s latest play is one of shock and laughter: there’s a corpse in a box in the living room and the solemnly revealed “coffin” is made from Weetabix packets. Dean’s mother has died suddenly, with two clothes pegs clenched in her teeth – oh these details! This leaves her teenage son with a dilemma: what to do with her body when he can’t afford a funeral, and how to fulfil his promise to honour his mother’s fear of burial and cremation and her wish for something different? There is even some macabre stage business with a saucepan and carrots – a Swiftian modest proposal that he might make her into a stew.
So that’s the hilarious beginning, underpinned with a serious commitment from Dean: “Promises in our house are sacred, like pegs on a washing line, they fix things in place so not even the strongest winds can rip them free.” This is set against his neighbour Trish’s pragmatism: “Promises are made to be broken.”
We subsequently learn that Dean’s mother had a fear of being buried alive: a chilling idea quickly turned to dark laughter when we hear extracts from a manual the 10-year-old Dean had made for his mother about how to deal with such an eventuality. And this is one of the devices used to move about in time, another being a list of posthumous instructions from his mother to help him in a future when she is no longer alive. Such documents establish the mutuality of their caring and expose the audience to their own fears, glimpsed through laughter.
It is against this eternal backdrop of death’s inevitability, together with the contemporary economic austerity, that the central drama is played out. This is a coming-of-age scenario involving Dean and Hayley, friends since primary school, both trying to make sense of contemporary life and their changing relationship: “I miss being ten … When you’re ten you don’t know how hard things are when you grow up.” The audience is directed to events in the recent past: the eagerly anticipated school prom, a rite of passage we have imported from America, at which Dean has committed a sartorial faux pas in his misguided attempt to please Hayley, who crossly ends up with a Bad Boy. She has a distressing time, as evidenced by her broken shoulder straps. Actress Debbie Brannon (Cilla, Coronation Street) achieves a theatrical coup in her sensitive encapsulation of Hayley, combining stroppy, feisty, attitude-driven teenager in school uniform, with poignantly fragile maiden in a broken evening dress. One feels that more than a bad time at the prom has broken Hayley, though, and even the comfort of Sadie’s coat cannot prevail against the cold desolation she feels.
As counterpoint to Hayley’s ethereal fragility, we have Lewis Bray’s (Cartoonopolis) power-packed substantiality in his portrayal of Dean: the earthiness of his stomping having seen a vagina, for example, which is so funny, so endearing in its direct joy – and his fiercely sensitive passion for Hayley.
Balancing the excessive corpse-related strategies and the emotionality of love and grief is neighbour Trish, a voice of authority and respectable remedies, whose adherence to facts has a hidden poignancy, as we will see. Her somewhat theatrical reaction to what Dean has done adds to the comedic dimension while amplifying the gravity of the macabre deeds, and this nod in the direction of melodrama is explained when we learn she used to be an actress. Sharon Byatt (Bread, Blood Brothers) balances and sustains the present character and her past profession very skilfully, as she does the juxtaposition of nosiness with genuine concern and compassion.
Christine Hatton’s set design complements the play’s main themes. Austerely furnished with simple items and brown laminate flooring, there are nevertheless areas of soft homeliness in the easy chair and the rose-laden wallpaper. The dominating feature is, of course, the “coffin” concealed under a white tablecloth: the corpse so flimsily contained; the ordinary appearance so easily compromised. How fragile is the barrier between domestic banality and the existential horror just beneath, and how inadequately this absurdity of cardboard holds the preferred surface together. This instability is further sustained in the rose-covered wallpaper – the blooms are at the pivotal moment of peak flowering and petal fall and this of course links with the love theme too.
Another theme in the play: the pressure of consumerism, is generally evoked by the notion of the hugely expensive school prom, with its attendant expectation of fairy tale emergence: “I’d been looking forward to the prom since I was 11. The dress the hair the makeup, to feel like a woman, finally, to step out of my mother’s shadow,” says Hayley. This democratisation of the elitist “coming out” ceremonies at the English court, now discontinued, but no less a commodification, is supported on the set by the image of those perfectly lined-up Weetabix packages which remind us of Andy Warhol’s depiction of commercial packaging and conveyor-belted standardisation. Still potent sixty years on.
People might say that Knee Deep in Promises is two separate stories, but I would refute this. Rather, the central love story is juxtaposed with another love story – the one between Dean and his mother Sadie. Dean’s integrity, his credibility as an admirable suitor, is enhanced by his determination to keep his promise. The image of death, the memento mori, was a key motif in Deborah Morgan’s previous work, The Punter, where Jim the skeleton was, in my opinion, the central character, and it holds equal importance in her latest play as an existential truth, as well as occasioning mirth.
It is not easy to portray tragedy and comedy in the same space; it is not easy to keep the audience with you while time is travelling back and forth, and the narrative is switching from one emotion and one pace to another. Director Paul Goetzee has managed this very challenging tragi-comic balancing act with skill. The side mirrors, integral to the studio, and left uncovered, serve to make a further point: that of multiple viewpoints, of parallel versions and interpretations.
Knee Deep in Promises is a play that makes you laugh, thank goodness, but it also makes you think. It makes you cry too, so be prepared for a resolution that will defy most expectations.