Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Good Grief

Jack Rooke and Sicely Rooke
Soho Theatre
HOME, Manchester
17 May 2017 to 19 May 2017

The title of Jack Rooke’s show – Good Grief- sounds like a contradiction. But this is appropriate for a show with a deceptive quality. For the first fifteen minutes or so the autobiographical Good Grief feels more like a stand up gig rather than a theatrical presentation. Rooke shares anecdotes about his mother’s misadventures and Spoonerisms, until gradually it begins to dawn that he is gently sugaring a very bitter pill.

Rooke’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and passed away when his son was in his teens and studying for his examinations. Small world – the same thing happened to me. In a conversational manner Rooke describes the peculiar rituals associated with grieving and takes a confessional, slightly ashamed, approach to the way he reacted himself.

For such a grim subject the tone of Good Grief is light throughout. Rooke constantly avoids the temptation to go for dark humour. In a horribly ironic twist, the dog that Rooke and his mother bought to compensate for the loss of his father was also stricken with cancer. However, Rooke describes the emotional impact of the event in a straightforward manner rather than mining it for sick jokes.

Rooke does not hesitate to poke fun at the more peculiar aspects of the grieving process. He reads aloud from the book ‘Grieving for Dummies’ and describes the process by which he and his mother worked their way through the massive amount of food provided by thoughtful neighbours.

The mood of the show moves towards confessional. In a twisted effort to claw back some control, Rooke indulged in binge eating and has a unique way of acknowledging the role of food as part of the healing process. There is a coffin on-stage that is stuffed with snacks, and Rooke invites us to take part in the process, sharing biscuits and cake. Rooke, somewhat shame-faced, describes how he exploited the sympathies expressed by well-wishers.  Although Rooke seems ashamed that the reasons he took such liberties were actually petty - leaving lessons early to get to the front of the queue in the canteen - it is very easy to see oneself doing the same. Rooke does, however, see the process as liberating and encourages us to do likewise, circulating cards that entitle the bearer to avoid awkward social situations.

Extensive use is made of filmed inserts. The use of film in live theatre is contentious – some patrons hate it while others really hate it. In Good Grief the focal point of the inserts is a series of conversations between Rooke and his grandmother, Sicely. They have the virtue of authenticity and are certainly moving, although one might also say they feel like trying a bit too hard to touch the emotions of the audience.

The light approach and emphasis on the mundane reality of the grieving process ensure that Good Grief avoids sentimentality and make the show a moving, if hardly conventional, look at a grim subject.

Reviewer: David Cunningham