Laughter is a grave matter

Club meeting: Doris (Anne Charleston), Lucille (Shirley-Anne Field), Mildred (Debbie Norman), Sam (Peter Ellis) and Ida (Anita Harris)

The Cemetery Club

Wolverhampton Grand

****

THE Cemetery Club is a sort of Golden Girls with headstones, three Jewish widows in Forest Hills, Queens coping with their loss in their own at times funny, at times sad ways.

We have Doris (Anne Charleston) who clings to the memory of her husband as if he were still there, refusing to move on past his grave and memory – she even still sees him around - and she spends her life fussing over the upkeep of his grave.

Then there is Lucille (Shirley-Anne Field) who sees widowhood as a chance to find herself new clothes, lots of them,  and a new man, again lots of them, as she plays the field, catching the admiring eye of any man she passes, or so she believes. And then somewhere between two have Ida (Anita Harris).

Ida still feels the loss but she wants to move on. The world and her life have changed. There had been three couples, six close friends, and now the men are all gone with our three widows locked into the monthly Sunday ritual of a trip to visit their dead husbands – they have become the cemetery club.

There are already tensions building when we join them on what is the fourth anniversary of the death of Doris's dear departed. Ida is tiring of the monthly pilgrimage while Lucille has plainly had enough: “I refuse to be in a club where half the members are dead – we should be out there searching for new applicants!”

Ivan Menchell's script has a sitcom feel about it, it is a little lightweight but it is packed with the barbed quips and one-liners which are the hallmark of Jewish humour.

Anne Charleston gives us a Doris dedicated to devotion towards a life long gone

It means a lot of smiles and laughs which alone would be enough for an entertaining evening and for drama we even have a drink throwing fight between Lucille and Doris who are constantly bickering and fighting with each other.

But with three old hands such as these playing just for a few laughs is hardly enough and they work hard on fleshing out the characters into real people so that by the time we reach the second act and the inevitable confessions and baring of souls we actually feel for each them and can empathise with their pain.

Shirley-Anne Field, as the acerbic man-hunter shows us a tired, sad and tragic old widow stripped of her glamour trying to get back at her womanising dead husband in the only way she thinks he could understand. Yet she cannot bring herself to do it.

Anne Charleston, best known as Madge from Neighbours, gives us a stoic Doris who will never be convinced that there can ever be more to her life than her late husband, no matter what, her dead husband exists far more than any logic or reason could ever manage.

 Then there is Ida, reliable, dependable, peacemaker Ida, the only one of the three with a claim to being well balanced. Anita Harris gives us a tender Ida who has got over her husband's death, keeps his memory, but wants to move on.

She wants to keep friendships and memories alive but not live in the past. She still wants to feel someone's touch, to not be alone any more - and her chance comes with Sam.

Sam is the widowed neighbourhood butcher, played with touching, awkward charm by Peter Ellis and, incidentally, in an accent which sounds a little like Cliff from Cheers which gave him a sort of familiarity.

Doris, left, is happy living in the past while Ida (Anita Harris) longs to find a new life

As the relationship between Sam and Ida grows we feel happy for both of them and when it is threatened it hurts. Lucille is jealous Ida has found a man before she did, while Doris sees it as being disrespectful to Ida's late husband and the pair, driven by their own hang-ups, do their best to discourage or even sabotage the affair.

The trio are to be bridesmaid's at friend Selma's umpteenth wedding where Sam has not only been invited but is giving them a lift so when Debbie Norman appears as well as the loud-mouth, raucous . . . slightly younger  . . .widow Mildred, a cameo role she performs beautifully, you can feel audience hackles rise at the interloper who has the temerity to be Sam's companion.

He is seen as cheating on Ida which meant the cast had done their jobs well. It is a bittersweet story about love, relationships, friendships, growing old and, inevitably death. We know somehow Sam and Ida will find their happiness and even Lucille finds some piece in a little twist at the end.

For once though in an Ian Dicken's production the set could do with some work. The plays has two scenes, Ida's house and the Forest Lawn's cemetery and is obviously a touring set built to fit the smallest theatre on the tour which leaves gaps at the sides on the Grand stage.

The only problem is that when we are in the cemetery scene we can see the furniture and walls of Ida's house stacked in the gloom round the sides at the back – a small point but distracting nonetheless.

This is the opener in the Grand's Summer Play Season of four plays from Ian Dickens and sets the bar high with Dead Ringer to come opening on 3 July followed by You're Only Young Twice, 10 July, and the Final Test which opens on 17 July. They have a lot to live up to.

Roger Clarke 

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