‘Wife after Death’ was written by Eric Chappell in 2011, when he was 77. The Lincolnshire born Chappell was an Electricity Board auditor before becoming a playwright. He is best known for the classic TV series ‘Rising Damp’ that was adapted from his stage play ‘The Banana Box’. It won a BAFTA and the Evening Standard’s film award for ‘Best Comedy’.
The two-hour performances are fine examples of dry British humour. The show was performed at 8.00 pm each Friday, and Saturday night at the comfortable Rockingham’s Castle Theatre, 8 Attwood Way, Rockingham for three weeks up to Saturday 13th April. I saw the last night’s performance.
The scene: is the present day in the plush sitting room of Dave Thursby, a famous TV comedian. The set is lavish: It was designed and constructed by David Heckingbottom, Rob Walker, Keira Owen and Callon Leam. The dusky pink walls with white woodwork are most sophisticated. The French windows leading to the garden, have rose gold curtains. There is a burgundy fitted carpet and rug. The oak furniture and burgundy leather studded Chesterfield settee and chairs oozed wealth.
A white contemporary lampstand in the corner points into a draped coffin on a trestle against the rear wall. The walls have modern artworks, a triptych and a large single work. The stage manager was Callon Leam. A small warning for the future, when the passage door of the set was open, you could see the rear stage clearly through the hinge gap – perhaps a strip of black cloth hung down the back of the door jamb would help. The good lighting and sound were operated by Jackie Hiscox.
It is a beautiful summer’s day, but sadly the highly popular TV comedian, Dave Thursby, has died so his friends are gathering in his lavish home for the funeral. The first to arrive is Dave’s scriptwriter and best friend of thirty years, a brash misery guts, Harvey (Peter Shaw) who has kept Dave top of the ratings for decades.
Vi (Larraine Heckingbottom) who is Harvey’s long-suffering wife, is trying to get her squeamish husband to look into the open coffin and pay his last respects to Dave. Harvey whispers to Vi that only a day or two earlier, Dave had confided in him admitting to a rather delicate subject that could have blown their careers to pieces.
One of the TV executives, snivelling Kevin (Rob Walker) is more upset about the potential drop in his income than about Dave dying. He arrives with his wife, a TV production secretary called Jane (Alison Gibson). They have been helping Dave’s attractive but snooty wife, Laura (Keira Owen) arrange the private funeral – for close friends and relatives only.
Arrogant Laura, who has for years gloried in being married to a famous person, has arranged a memorable funeral. Just as the proceedings begin, a strange and rather stern party-pooper, Kay (Ruth Watt) who no one seems to recognise, appears at the house. She knows Dave well – and is outspoken. Funerals, like weddings, are a wonderful time to state one’s mind.
This script is very well constructed, with several twists and a real sparkle. This highly experienced cast has produced a hilarious and delightful comedy. Peter Shaw was superb as the straight faced neurotic miseryguts, against Larraine’s bubbly nature. The characters were well defined, with Keira as the wife desperate to get her hands-on Dave’s cash – but look cool and upset in the process. Rob was great as the annoying the producer. The two girls, Alison and Ruth captured the downtrodden air perfectly. Great team chemistry. This play is not one of Chappell’s regular farces, but a skilfully written comedy with plenty of twists and surprises. Plenty of laughs. What would normally have been a sell-out, was a house about 70% full thanks to the Eagles / Dockers derby, but the actors still gave it their all – another ‘Castle’ special.