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Group: The Millennium Players

Show: Dead Man’s Cell Phone

Writer: Sarah Ruhl

Venue: Nutley Memorial Hall, Nutley

Date: 1 June 2024

Stage Director: Tom Messmer

Choreographer: Amelie Roberts / Carine Roberts

Producer: Tom Messmer

Sarah Ruhl is an award winning modern playwright with exciting ground-breaking work on and off Broadway: how incredibly satisfying it is therefore to see one of her plays staged, and staged with such thought and consideration, by a community theatre group. The effect is to introduce everyone to a play they might never otherwise have encountered, which is always exciting and inspiring.


The first striking element is the staging of the play, and the themes of black, white and red that run throughout. Within a black surround, there are two small white tables with a woman sat at one facing the audience, and a man at the other, facing the back of the stage. This is a brave and bold statement of a director not afraid to take risks with back facing the audience which is most refreshing. The woman works at her laptop, they are clearly working while at a café, in silence, until the ringing of a phone is heard: the man’s phone, which he doesn’t answer. She eventually gets up to investigate why he’s not answering and discovers that he’s died, sitting straight backed in his chair; she answers his phone in almost shock, and ends up taking a message for him, followed by another call and another message, finding a hilarious and eerie responsibility in answering his phone.


The play itself is fascinating, with the themes of life and death and what it means to be alive and living which weave through the play as this woman: Jean, wanders through the dead man’s life. Jean doesn’t have a mobile phone of her own and suddenly feels enormously responsible for this man: Gordon, and his life legacy. She tiptoes, trips and blunders through his life, meeting his mum, his wife, his brother and his mistress; inventing Gordon’s last words to each of them, trying to assuage their varying feelings of his sudden departure. Her insistence on imprinting Gordon upon them as being ultimately good, reinventing him, is the quintessential example of the phrase “we don’t see people as they are, we see them as we are”: she is kind and good, and she has printed this idea him being good onto him, even to the point of loving this man that she never actually spoke to. The odd thing is that these serious points are made so hilariously, with such simplicity and such bold and poetic writing in places, that the play is both very thought provoking and poignant, and at times hilariously guffaw funny. It’s also impossible to predict where the plot is going, which is wonderfully refreshing.


Director Tom Messmer has done a truly remarkable job with directing this piece. His vision is clear throughout and everything works together: the colour themes, the sets changing throughout, the direction of the cast and the stage crew workings are absolutely inspired. Two stage crew all in black work around the actors in the changes and acknowledge each other, making them part of the action, which is such a lovely modern touch. The addition of the angel wings for both of them, within the context of this play, is totally brilliant. There are parts of the play which are quite stylised, due both subject matter and dialogue, but this actually works perfectly with the naturalistic acting from all five cast members. Zoe May plays the confidence lacking Jean with aplomb: so much withheld, so much unspoken as well as spoken. Her comic timing with facial expressions contrasted with wording is super. The play really is all about everyone around Gordon, but we also discover who Jean, on stage throughout, is: someone who lives vicariously through recording other peoples’ lives. She is like a fragile little bird on the stage, not wanting to take up room, but obviously needing something in her own life as well. She has a love of stationery we discover, shared by Gordon’s brother Dwight, played with distanced stoicism by David Severn, who works with stationery, and as we begin to see a blossoming of feelings little illuminated paper houses (beautifully made by the director’s wife) drop down from above and hang over them: so funny, so symbolic, such an “aah” moment and very pretty.


Comedy timing kudos to all three other actors, including a true belly laugh moment in the opening monologue in act two by Gordon, played by Aidan McConville, in his delivery following a phrase in Chinese. Aidan plays the really unlikeable Gordon with no apology, but also gives his character depth and layers, which ultimately leaves the audience having sympathy for him. Carine Roberts plays both the mistress: Carlotta, with a great accent, and wife Hermia. You’d be forgiven for thinking they were played by two different people, not just in the changes of physical appearance but she plays them completely differently. The scene where Hermia is drunk is incredibly funny, including the over filling of the wine glass, her mannerisms and lessening of physical inhibitions: brilliantly done. Last but by no means least, Sarah Cannon is superb as Gordon’s mum. She fills the stage with her presence, giving the mum such over bearing energy as well as grief, while all the while making this true matriarch really funny. Not easy, and yet she makes it look effortless. Her walk to the lectern for the funeral is laugh out loud funny. None of the characters are straight forward and easy to play but all these actors have done a truly brilliant job.


Props, lighting, projections on to the tiny screen at the back, and the film noir clarinet led jazz incidental music: all have been considered carefully and added in just the right ways. The reverse staging opening in act two is genius: we suddenly hear from Gordon, from his viewpoint. So he faces the audience and Jean has her back to them. He fills in the missing pieces of the story, we suddenly understand everything, and it all makes sense: hugely gratifying. This is a wonderful, highly unusual play, tackled with deft skill by a gifted director working with generous and super actors. The hugest most heartfelt congratulations to every single person involved in this first class, stunning production.


Susanne Crosby

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