The use of comedy to shield us from the realities of death is a common human trait, and a very British one at that. Here, Jack Rooke presents a fresh, brave, poetic and heartfelt tragi-comedy detailing his personal battle with grief. What he does so well is to show us how laughter can pierce the emptiness, and the fact Rooke manages to keep people smiling and laughing through the inevitable tears is a testament to a true comic talent.
The stage is kitted out like we're sitting in on a public wake, with an open coffin incongruously packed with malt loaf and the title of the show spelt out with funeral flowers. The tone is sombre initially, but Rooke settles the crowd with a warm rapport and words of gratitude for such a fine turnout. He promises that he won't let anyone go hungry – and sure enough, he hands round cake and biscuits intermittently throughout.
Comfort food is important to Rooke, and has an effective and emotive role to play in understanding how Rooke has coped with his loss. It's not just the distraction of eating; it's the memories that certain foods contain. The little details and stories that branch off these memory-triggers are joyous yet so incredibly sad. At times Rooke gauges the awkwardness levels with his "awkward-ometer", which has the masterful effect of reminding the audience that this is a comedy show, and also highlights the various ways in which people tip-toe round the bereaved.
This isn't a conventional stand-up show by any account. Rooke isn't battering us into submission with joke upon joke; the style is gentle and conversational. Humour leaps out in unexpected places. Rooke uses multimedia to show us evocative pictures, films, audio featuring other family members, showing the importance of talking about death as a route to accepting the finality of it. He admits that he has used his grief to his advantage and you can't blame him for that; it's all part of the process. Occasionally he moves to the microphone to make more “serious” points, as though when he's off-mic he is trying to distract himself and us from what's really happening.
This is a very real, sincere and darkly funny performance, and Rooke shows how strong he has become in the face of emotional trauma. The point hammered home in such a beautiful way is that we can't avoid death, or those affected by it. Those suffering grief are still the same people they were; we just need a more sensitive approach (and here Rooke points to hugely insensitive cuts to the Widowed Parent's Allowance). This is a cathartic experience for the audience as much as Rooke; there is something to take away for everyone, besides puffy eyes, a wet sleeve and the taste of malt loaf.