Death and Gardening is a devised physical comedy nowhere near as morose as death nor as tranquil as gardening. Instead, Wet Picnic presents a fervent frolic of exaggerated gestures and canyon-wide smiles. The production is a whir of comedic elements segueing into poignant messages.
The premise is quite simple: Dave Fenshaw is dying. A brick fell on his head. Even with mum, brother and pregnant wife ostensibly optimistic at his bedside, the ventilators and drug cocktails will not stop the inevitable. Dave is constantly assured of the grim certainty of death by a sort of support network of gnome-like ‘caretakers’. This mischievous, yellow raincoat-clad group are responsible for making the transition from life to death as willing as possible. Obviously no strangers to death, they are irreverent to Dave’s anguish and blissfully accept his fate on his behalf.
Keeping on mind this is an outright comedy (The Final Countdown and a leather catsuit all come into play) the plot is fantastically bonkers. The contagious energy throughout never wanes: Dave’s life, loves and escapades are hurtled through in a marvellous montage; a Scooby Doo pastiche chase scene takes place through elevators and labyrinths without set; performers switch roles as if costume and props were flying about suspended on wire. It’s truly an achievement how much action occurs standing in one spot, and how much spirit and zeal the ensemble has.
The jocular production makes imaginative use of few props, including a bed stranding upright that also functions as a flowerbed. A ball, flower and piece of cloth is a convincing puppet of Death (with a miniature scythe) that is an emotive story-telling device - in fact, the word 'emotive' summarises Death and Gardening best. Dave revisits (and his family recall) first dates, trips abroad and other moments in his life. Going back in his own personal timeline to watch, fleetingly, these memories constructs a glorious realisation: the most wonderful, nuanced moments of life are rapidly experienced, while times of fear appear elongated and endless. In the end, the experience of the former provides a relative capability to cope with latter. Dave discovers this silver lining at a believable pace with an ingenuous character portrayal.
The only bugbear with Death and Gardening is that transitions between different scenes occasionally go on for too long. As with the rest of performance, the transitions are visually gorgeous, exceptionally choreographed and affecting. The lengthy transitions are an unnecessary diversion from the main action.
Wet Picnic has nurtured and created an excellent experience with Death and Gardening. The production is a skilled use of physicality, props and space. As stories go, Dave's is bittersweet. All cast members shine in the formulation of a spirited and beguiling hour. Death is an irrefutable fact, as is the impossibility to leave Death and Gardening not feeling ebullient. The only horror is the notion that when we pass the great divide there may be chirpy gnomes waiting to assist us.