A mere seven months after Wildgoose Theatre’s production of the same text, Applied Theatre company Next Door But One take on Laura Wade’s 2005 play about green funerals, set in the heart of the local greenery of York Cemetery. They succeed in turning the elegant, austere chapel into an intimate, homely performance space for Colder Than Here. The company delivers a witty and compassionate meditation on death, love and family in occasion of York’s Dead Good Festival.
A simple set, evocative of images of nature and grass, complete with a television showing a photograph of a peaceful looking field, greets the audience when they enter the space. Colder Than Here revolves around Myra’s (Susanna Cunningham) quest of the perfect burial ground: she has been given six to nine months to live due to terminal bone cancer, and she has no intention of sitting around in the meantime. She is determined to die her own way. For this reason, she has even made a rather cringey powerpoint titled ‘My Funeral’ to show her family, just to make sure that everybody will be on the same page regarding her dying.
How does life continue when death is around the corner?
Wade’s script is an attempt to unpick this question with irony and realism, avoiding an over-dramatic approach by finding the lighter moments within the tragedy. Yet, it is also a lucid comment on the pervasiveness of death, the magnitude of which inescapably modifies family dynamics. Cunningham does a wonderful job as Myra, a willful, strong woman who launches herself into the organizational aspects of her dying – what food should be ordered for the funeral? What burial ground will be the most comfortable? If death must come, she wants to be ready. Yet, Myra also has another mission to accomplish before her departure: that of trying to re-unite her family, mending previously fractured and awkward relationships. This production alludes, quietly, to her success: her pragmatic approach to death, which includes ordering a cardboard coffin that can fit into the letterbox and painting it with stars and clouds, manages to create a situation in which her two daughters, Harriet (Ceridwen Smith) and Jenna (Anna Rogers), and her husband Alec (Maurice Crichton), cannot but co-operate and support each other, leaving their differences behind.
Matt Harper-Hardcastle directs a beautifully simple production that turns the talent of its ensemble into its greatest strength. In particular, the best scenes are those that linger on the family’s vulnerability which surfaces amid the frantic funeral organization. Smith and Rogers have unquestionable chemistry as the sisterly duo, and they excel in portraying an endearing relationship that constantly oscillates between competitiveness and extreme affection. Rogers portrays the over-dramatic Jenna with great kindness, allowing the audience to see the special bond that she shares with her mother: the scenes in which she finds herself alone with Myra in two different burial grounds are among the highlights of the show. Smith is brilliant as the ‘strong’ Harriet, who finds that she is not as strong as she thought she was. Crichton’s performance of Alec is reminiscent of that of Tracy Letts in Greta Gerwig’s recent film Ladybird: he is a figure of quiet resilience, and the moment in which he takes Myra in his arms, remembering with her the history of their love, is both heart-breaking and heart-warming.
When Jenna complains about being dragged to view a burial ground by shouting, “It’s morbid!”, Myra quietly responds: “It’s happening.” Colder Than Here, then, also puts forward the interesting argument that what may seem morbid to some is unfortunately other people’s everyday reality. Myra’s family are shown to push themselves to accept her constant need to talk about her death and, by doing this, they learn about sides of themselves that they had never known before. Next Door But One’s production makes the audience laugh, cry and think, until they leave the venue feeling shaken, but also irremediably uplifted.
Supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, NDB1 are able to offer tickets as ‘Pay What You Feel’ with all proceeds going to St. Leonard’s Hospice. Check the company’s website for dates and tickets here.