[Review:] NATTERS OF LIFE & DEATH (online).
To view this performance for free, click here.
Natters of Life & Death is a charming short one-woman play written and performed by Ann Hirst and directed by Paul Andrew Goldsmith. The play provides its audience with lighthearted humour, nostalgia, and even comic relief from deeper topics such as ageing bodies, issues surrounding labour, fears about parenting, and shamed female anatomy, but all of this without compromising the endearing comedy it offers throughout. The performance could, indeed, benefit from a few minor adjustments to the script and video editing decisions, but, nevertheless, a lovable watch.
Hirst’s comedic timing is brilliant. She is wonderfully expressive and portrays her middle-aged mum character, Davina, with vigour and credibility. Hirst’s movements around the kitchen and her vivified use of the space makes for a constant sense of happening and intrigue, and her actions seem calculated and natural. In terms of characterisation, I would just pay more attention to moments when the character is remembering things [or trying to], but this is mainly earlier on in the performance. The issue here is one of timing; Hirst struggles with her pacing quite regularly in these more serious moments. As I wrote above, her comedic timing is wonderful, but it often feels as though we have moved on far too quickly from other, either neutral or deeper thoughts. It seems unnatural.
Structurally, this is a very strong dramatic text. Content flows well from one topic to another, and it is easy to forget the stasis of the kitchen setting that is presented as homely and lived-in. The speech is, in fact, incredibly naturalistic on the whole, which is indicative of definite talent, and comedy definitely seems to come easily to writer Hirst who is able to make light of a very good range of topics. A few scenes, such as Davina imagining herself as the host of a TV show, do seem underseasoned and awkward, and there does seem to be some overreliance upon phone calls to break up the text, but these are hardly worth noting.
Nonetheless, I was very impressed by the writing of the telephone conversations as well. It is common for writers to over-inform audiences with these, with characters’ speech often unnecessarily filling in the gaps of what is said on the other side of the line inaudibly to audience members, and hence comprising the scene’s naturalism. However, Hirst’s text surrounding these phone calls is very well tailored and adequately esoteric so as to retain the required naturalism without distancing/confusing the audience. I would just change the text in the phone call with Adam, as the repetitions of what Adam is saying become too regular and structured, leaning into this aforementioned common issue. Still, this esotericism paints a vivid picture of Davina’s life beyond the play, and characters remain informed by our awakened imagination.
Remaining on this topic of naturalism, another issue I have pertains to what the phone itself displays — or, rather, fails to display — and how the mobile is handled. The sound of the phone ringing is non-diegetic, and this is most distinct and obnoxiously unnatural. The screen is entirely black, and Hirst uses the middle button of the phone to mime turning it off, which is not how iPhones operate. To solve this, I would have the phone ring in real time, perhaps with the aid of a timer on the phone set to sound like a ringtone and to go off accordingly, or, more preferably, I would simply have Goldsmith ring it on time. If no way can be found to light and darken the screen as though a phone call is incoming or finished, I would make sure to keep the phone out of view — say, keep it on that high shelf, or change camera angles when accepting the call. The lack of naturalism here is easily avoidable and should be a priority to secure, being that telephone conversations recur regularly throughout. It would also be preferable for Davina to excuse herself before each phone call, as we as the audience are led throughout to feel as though we are in the kitchen with her, having a one-way chat, and, as it stands, an audience is made to feel momentarily unimportant, sidelined, forgotten or ignored when Hirst answers the phone.
I must admit that this performance does suffer from quite a few technical issues. Indeed, editing is quite harsh in places, but the main issues arise in sound effects and music and in the cutaways. The principal issue with these former items is volume. Music is far too loud and should be lowered significantly. Sound effects are also, as mentioned above, non-diegetic, which creates a sense of unnaturalism — I have mentioned the issue of Davina’s ringtone, but there is also the radio whose volume is, in fact, satisfactory but whose music suddenly disappears once Davina thinks about exploring the possibility of Jason having a Facebook profile. Nevertheless, I should affirm here that the comedy of this scene is splendid: the dramatic, melancholic classical music as Hirst clasps a firm watermelon in her hand and, depressed, informs us of her sad and sagging breasts. It becomes a most refreshingly facetious and hilarious speech.
As for the cutaways, it is not until halfway into the performance that their purpose really becomes clear. Initially, for example, we have the inexplicable image of an armadillo rolling into a ball, and there is no explanation as to what relevance this has; there is nothing to ground it in the dramatic text. However, it soon becomes clear, especially after the cutaways to an image of a Vagina Monologues poster or to the “Swearoplane”, that these cutaways serve to dramatise or reflect the absurdity of Davina’s actions or the content of her soliloquies. The armadillo, then, is most likely supposed to be read as a quirky stylisation of Davina bopping briefly below the counter. In the end, these become quite a quirky feature of the play, but they do certainly need to be better introduced. Perhaps Davina mentions at the beginning, before any images at all are presented to us, that random vignettes and visions pop into her head, or something similar. Such an introduction as to what function these cutaways have for both her and us as spectators would better contextualise them within the dramatic text.
However, I do think including video footage instead of still images is preferable — Patrick Star’s exploding head, for instance, versus the stubborn image of an unmoving stir fry. I would also make sure that sound accompanies them all, just as it does these two — though, again, at a much lower volume than they are currently — and that they are snappy, quick flashes that inform the text, rather than lengthy stills that subtract from it, like the image of the dishevelled sofa or those of the jute rug or the TV. In fact, these latter images are superfluous; instead, the images that are seemingly irrelevant but related thematically are those which should be included. Technically, then, this is certainly not a perfect performance, but, again, Hirst’s charming characterisation and vitality throughout certainly outweigh any pedantic cons.
Overall, an endearing and simply loveable performance from beginning to end. Certainly worth a watch to uplift you on an afternoon in lockdown.