Writer: Joel Samuels
Director: Liz Bacon
Producer: Leila Sykes with Fine Mess Theatre
Wednesday 7th – Sunday 10th Feb
The Cage theatre at the Vault festival is a dank and dingy cellar space, where trains rattle overhead at regular intervals and the air is surprisingly hot and muggy for such a subterranean place. It’s somewhere you could imagine stumbling across long-forgotten dead bodies, but that’s about as close as it comes to being funeral-adjacent, let alone a location for a wake party whose subject is still very much alive. And yet, Fine Mess Theatre manage to live up to their name, and transform the Cage into a space for pathos, humour, joy, and a shindig which leaves it strewn with party hats and, brightly coloured decorations, and empty plastic cups of prosecco.
At just over 45 minutes long, A Wake in Progress is both short and (bitter)sweet. It tells the story of a young person diagnosed with a terminal illness, and how they and the people closest to them come to terms with the fact that their time left with them is limited. The five actors play various roles from the protagonist’s life, including lover, sibling, best friend, and funerary celebrant/amateur therapist/narrator (who, played by Stella Taylor, was the standout talent in a talented cast). The audience plays a role in decision-making at several junctures, from naming new characters as they’re introduced, to deciding whether our story’s protagonist decides to buy a dog or go skydiving. On the night I was there I didn’t feel like the cast did the best job of incorporating the audience suggestions in any way deeper than the odd throwaway line, but this was still enough to instill in the audience a sense that we were part of events.
As a result, towards the end (when the titular wake takes place), it felt relatively natural for us to play the role of assorted family and friends – assisting to hand out party hats, pour drinks, pass around sweets, and generally get up and moving and schmoozing. The resultant atmosphere really did feel like a somewhat awkward but overall pleasant soiree – just as it was supposed to be. After all the characters had finished their speeches, we came together to sing In My Life to ukulele accompaniment, sharing pre-printed lyric sheets with the person next to us. With my eyes on the paper in front of me, and my whole concentration on trying to sing along, I didn’t notice a subtle change taking place on stage; when I looked up and noticed what was different, it really did hit me in the guts. This final moment – of loss mingling with a feeling of community and connectedness – was the one which best encapsulated what grief truly feels like, and it stayed with me as I left the theatre.
A Wake in Progress is nicely done little play about life, death, and relationships; yet despite these heavy themes, it manages to stay light and warm-hearted. It is hardly an ambitious project, but with it the artistic team at Fine Mess has achieved a playful, earnest, and amusing piece of theatre which fits snugly with the feeling of the Vault festival.