Grave Concern, a piece new writing by writer and co-director Connor Rowlett,  begins and ends with a funeral scene, in both cases, the uneven intonations of the priest (Calum Macleod) are interrupted by awkwardly loud phone conversations. By this we can sum up Grave Concern; grief and hilarity rub shoulders in this small Northern Irish community, where your burying place is fraught with social etiquette. Graves, death and graveyards are constantly on the characters minds, and they’re aware- always telling each other not to be so “morbid”, as they try to keep up their irreverence in the face of death.

The one-liners and rapport between the actors garnered big laughs from the audience throughout. A standout performance was Max Harrison’s as Uncle John, who sets the tone when he orders an Indian takeaway at his best friend Dennis’ funeral and is met with protests that “we’re all middle-aged and Irish”. Broken by his friend’s Dennis’ death, his prickly exterior is slowly peeled away over the course of the play. Harrison has many great lines, but for a character that carries the emotional and comedic heart of the play, he never quite manages to convey this. A great moment, underwritten with pathos (as is all the comedy in Great Concern) happens when he argues with his father-in-law, Malachy (Daniel Quigley), over who will have the remaining two graves next to Dennis. Quigley is really a joy to watch - shrieking with indignation when his daughter tries to show him his grave in a (gasp) ‘Protestant!’ cemetery. 

"Grave Concern is always semi-fantastical, at times out-and-out farcical, yet remains a heart-warming family story"

Louise Harris is a convincing Máiréad, the hardened matriarch with a heart of gold, but is always slightly too wooden, her relationship with Brendan (Rory Russell) never quite believable. Russell excels as this sensitive, if repressed, wisecracking father, whilst Paul Storrs as Joe, his son, has excellent comedic timing. Storrs easily dominates the stage with cocky effortlessness, yet finely handles some genuinely tear-jerking scenes, and his relationship with Caitlyn (Sneha Lala, doing well with an underwritten character) is tenderly realised.

Grave Concern is always semi-fantastical, at times out-and-out farcical, yet remains a heart-warming family story. The transitions, with rock music blaring as the cast rearranges the set, really play up the sitcom-like feel of the production, which works well with the subtle direction. At its core, the show succeeds at giving us a moving and hilarious glimpse into a small community trying its best to make sense of the banality of death.

 However, the action takes a while to get going. There are big issues with pacing and the play is simply too long - several scenes should have been cut in the rehearsal process. The main issue with the script is you’re never that sure where it’s going or what the point of certain scenes is. This is the main let down and means actors are stuck onstage bumbling through seemingly pointless scenes. The script is indeed often fantastic. The cast interrupts and plays off each other, enjoying the lilting, rhythmic dialogue- long pauses are just as meaningful as the times when people talk over each other. This doesn’t quite work for the funeral scenes where you don’t know what the priest is saying - there must be a reason for that biblical passage to be chosen but it never emerges.


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The storyline dealing with Joe’s parents’ racism never really works - I inwardly groaned when one character broke out the usual Martin Luther King handbook. Broad-strokes comedy can work, broad-strokes discussions about racism from a white perspective?  Not so much. Uncle John’s own racism when Storrs tells him about his ‘brown’ or ‘dark-skinned’ girlfriend is never dealt with, and it seems like his parents are meant to be absolved of their racism by being blatantly xenophobic to the Belgian Dorothé- or Dorothy, as they insist. She’s not much more than a stereotype, played with such relish by Apolline Bökkerink that you can’t help but take her side.

Grave Concern is simply too contrived to truly succeed as a script, and veers violently between farce and sentimentality, never quite treading the fine line that makes a ‘dark comedy’. Still, some moments of truly great writing, amusing hijinks and emotional gut-punches delivered by the actors make this a recommended distraction on a cold winter night.   

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