“Grief has become mainstream”, says Jack Rooke in his post-show talk. Everyone (up to and including Prince Harry) knows now how important it is to talk about bereavement. The problem is that we just don’t know how to do it; we find it too scary, embarrassing or just plain awkward. In his show ‘Good Grief’, Jack Rooke supplies a model for such talk; just make it simple and honest. And – at least in Rooke’s case – funny.
Note; hereafter I’m going to call him ‘Jack’, rather than ‘Rooke – which is a reflection of the intimacy of the show and how I came out feeling about him.
It would be a mistake to give the impression that ‘Good Grief’ is ‘worthy’ or ‘educational’. It would even be a mistake to say that this piece offers ‘insights’ into death and bereavement. It may well do so, but, more importantly, it is just Jack, telling it like it was for him. We get the sense that he is happy to tell his story and let it land or not land. In his post-show talk he acknowledges that he is delighted when someone feeds back to him that the show really resonated with them, but you also get a strong sense that this is not its purpose. Instead, he simply talks candidly about his experience of this quintessentially human event, and thereby empowers others to do likewise. And aside from all this, he has made a very entertaining piece of theatre.
Jack has an astute theatrical awareness. He mixes it up nicely, using photos, video footage, amusing props (mostly food), a balance of stand-up style story-telling, interaction with the audience and more dramatic ‘statements’ where he stands solemnly at a microphone. But his two main assets are a perfect sense of timing and … well … just himself, really. He is the exuberant puppy we all want to be around. We don’t really care what it does or how – it just makes us feel all warm and smiley and like we want to stroke it (this is metaphorical, Jack, just in case you’re reading this). From his entrance onto the stage, his bubbly openness is utterly disarming and we are invested in him before we hear anything about his story. He uses his comedy background to very good effect, relates to the audience very personally and seems genuinely surprised and happy to see us. He also invites our participation – not in those skin-crawling, let-the-floor-open-up-and-swallow-me kinds of ways but much more cleverly and effectively – by feeding us!
This is a master-stroke, on several levels. Most obviously, who wouldn’t be charmed by being offered a piece of buttered malt loaf in the middle of a play? However, we are offered this treat just as Jack explains that he and his dad ate a plate of Soreen together as they absorbed the news that his dad’s cancer was terminal. Accordingly, Soreen will be forever frozen in Jack’s mind in its association with this terrible news – it tastes of that moment, with all its incomprehension and despair. As I sit in the audience and tuck into my own slice I have a vicarious but visceral sense both of that deep sorrow and of the tangible solace afforded by the simple act of eating something this dense and sweet.
Food is, indeed, a major theme in Jack’s story; comfort eating really comes into its own here. Food – always carb-heavy, of course – offers distraction, control, relief. It is also, for Jack, a way of structuring his story. Just as music can mark and evoke different significant moments in our lives, so each ‘chapter’ of Jack’s story is introduced with a photo of the different food with which it is associated. Food also enables Jack to express the grief and anger felt by his 15-year-old self after his father’s death; when sympathetic neighbours deliver their 17th lasagne, he wails “If there are mushrooms in this I’m going to go bat-shit!” This simple, petulant statement carries an almost intolerable load of emotional freight.
Jack reports that ‘Good Grief’ wasn’t so much ‘written’ as ‘spoken: he developed it by transcribing the words he had dictated onto a dictaphone. This explains a great deal of the spontaneity and authenticity that characterises the piece. It lacks contrivance and polish and it is precisely this rawness which makes it so affecting. But it would be wrong to over-emphasise the poignancy of the show. While that is, obviously, an underlying theme, it is continually leavened by the nature of Jack’s personality, presentational style and humour. The result is that the whole thing actually feels very up-beat and fun – a considerable achievement, given the subject-matter.