Although quite a popular choice at the start of the pandemic, rehearsed readings have not been so prominent of late. Stripped of the other usual elements of a play (costumes, scenery, lights, etc.) the end result often has more in common with an audio play – albeit with a visual element – and with any piece that is wordy the effect can be soporific. However, there are honourable exceptions and the latest release from the Finborough Theatre falls into that category. Quite apart from its quirky title, A Brief List Of Everyone Who Died, what immediately strikes the viewer is the elegance of the structure of this piece from American writer Jacob Marx Rice.
Covering a span of some 78 years, the play proceeds in a series of brief scenes through the life of Graciela (Grace/Gracie) as she encounters and deals with the deaths of those close to her. Her first loss is her dog Buster when she is only five years old. Heartbroken she declares that if nobody ever goes to heaven again then she will have no further reason to be sad.
If only life, or rather death, were that easy to control. Graciela makes her way through life as a succession of family members, friends, neighbours and pets continue to depart from her either through natural causes, accidents, disease or suicide. This latter strikes her hardest as best friend Jordan ends his life suffering from depression. At the exact halfway point in her lifespan, she reaches the current day situation and Covid is raging, bringing death to many she does not even know. In her early days she is unable to deal with the demise of her loved ones (a hangover from the trauma of that first death) even finding excuses to avoid funerals but as she herself ages she comes to understand it is inevitable and accepts the fate we must all come to.
The play’s conclusion is, of course, inevitable. I’m conscious that this description makes proceedings sound a) gloomy and b) worthy when in fact the writing is full of little surprises and a good deal of comic content. The piece is as much about life as it is death as we see Graciela develop from a young child to an independent woman making her way through law school, forming a lifelong relationship with Cass, starting her own family via adoption and, mostly, finding contentment.
Vivia Font does a very good job of showing us Graciela at the various stages of her life – exuberant child, moody teenager, committed parent and so on – using her vocal range and some changes of hairstyle to effectively convey the different ages ranges which she is called upon to portray. She keeps the same clothes throughout, however, suggesting that though advancing in years she is still basically the same person.
The other four readers play a range of characters including her parents, child and grandchildren. Gemma Barnett gives partner Cass a wonderfully still air which contrasts nicely with Font’s more animated approach and Raphael Bushay is convincing as both childhood playmate and adult best friend Jordan. In one of the most humorous scenes Font and Bushay are 8 year olds playing at funerals and speculating about heaven in the way that only children can.
Director Alex Howarth has rightly kept the rest of the set up very simple with head and shoulder shots against plain backgrounds serving to give prominence to the writer’s words. Jacob Marx Rice demonstrates a knack for capturing credible voices at different points in life from the slight mispronunciations of childhood to the greater certainties of adulthood.
Some of the Americanisms may well baffle British viewers but I didn’t feel that any significant meaning was lost through unfamiliar terms and the situation is certainly universal enough for anyone to comprehend. It would be interesting to see the piece fully staged though, in many ways, this current format, suits it perfectly as it is distilled to its essence. This is a world premiere performance and, once again, the Finborough Theatre has found another little gem of a play to keep us entertained and to make us think about our own passage through life.