Review by Harry Bower
When someone close to you passes away, grief can manifest itself in a multitude of ways. For most people, writing a humorous show about the person who just died and then touring the country with it is not one of those ways. But what if you’re part of an award-winning physical comedy company and your friend, who is dying, asks you to make a show about it? Well, then, I guess you don’t really have a choice. I mean, who’s going to say no to that? For our sake – it’s a good job Ugly Bucket didn’t say no, because the result is a therapeutic, touching, funny and almost perfect physical interpretation of grief delivered in a sensitive and healing way.
I’ll start this review by being upfront about it; in case you hadn’t already guessed, Good Grief is like no piece of theatre I have ever seen before. Reading the synopsis of this show cannot possibly prepare you for what you’re walking into. Five masters of clowning are waiting for the audience when we take our seats. The set is a Mighty-Boosh-esque collection of jaggedy flats, a telephone, an armchair, and clever use of lighting; most of these elements are salmon pink and matched to the costuming, which is equally and appropriately basic. All this draws focus to the white-painted faces of the performers, the paint melting throughout the performance under the heat of the room and the physical exertion of its hosts, somehow representing grief itself – immaculate and opaque to begin with, slowly dissolving and softening as each act passes.
The show opens with a re-enactment of the death of their muse, the cast using inventive and creative movement to accompany masterful facial expressions which guide the audience on their collective processing of grief. Each stage of the process is explored intimately; grieving whilst someone is still alive, the decision taken to let go, immediate grief, denial and anger, loneliness, the tragedy of being reminded of them everywhere you look, and finally, acceptance and fond memory.
Ugly Bucket have created something with such care and consideration to the grieving process that, regardless of specifics, it feels immediately relatable and relevant. Clowning, by its very nature, has the power to cause rapturous laughter and sorrowful poignancy, but to bring an audience from the verge of tears to a belly chuckle in the space of one scene in an emotionally responsible way is a challenge, and one that these performers have nailed.
Every Good Grief performance is live captioned with the use of a screen hanging above the stage. Not only is this used to make the show more accessible, it’s also woven into the narrative, used at times to introduce new layers of comedy with the actors interacting with it. This captioning was critical not just because of the Simlish-like noises made by the performers, but because the entire show features verbatim voiceovers and recordings from interviews with close family members and friends of the deceased protagonist. Such recordings are used sparingly but to fantastic effect, and it’s these moments which had me welling up most. A pulsating and thumping techno beat accompanies the stage action alongside some suitably chaotic and erratic lighting effects.
If you asked me to sum up Good Grief in one sentence, I couldn’t. So please don’t. It left me speechless and feeling just a tiny bit healed. For a show with so few words, it manages to say so much. Like a warm hug, it embraces its audience and doesn’t let go until the final scene. With all its actors sitting still for a rare moment, while a verbatim clip plays, each looks at each other, taking in the moment, smiling, and acknowledging the justice they have done for their friend in performing this show. It’s at this point I felt as though we had been released emotionally from the story, and we were allowed to contemplate our own interpretation of death and the impact it has on those left behind. This is not a show which is appropriate for someone in the early stages of grief, but speaking as someone who has processed recent loss and come to terms with it – it is exactly the show I needed to see. Suddenly everything made sense. The fog was lifted.
I am aware of my tendency to lean into hyperbole and to cast dramatic assertions in my opinions. So why stop now? Good Grief is one of the most remarkable experiences I have ever been fortunate enough to be part of, not just at VAULT Festival, but ever. It was almost an out-of-body experience which, to begin with confused me, and ended up consuming me. 24 hours on, I already feel as though I want to see it again. Ugly Bucket are surely one of the most innovative and creative theatre companies on the fringe circuit today. If the rest of their work is even close to this standard, the UK should be holding them up as the finest example of what can be achieved by our creative sector. To the cast – hurry back to London. I’m counting down the days until our next therapy session.
Good Grief played as part of the now concluded VAULT Festival. More information on the show at https://vaultfestival.com/events/good-grief/