Am I Dead Yet begins suddenly, with a catastrophically loud guitar riff jumping the audience into silence. Before we’ve quite recovered, Chris Thorpe and Jon Spooner are onstage, throwing themselves around with a level of brash intensity that was very unexpected from a piece about death. The fact that making a show about death is such a surprising act seems of little concern to Thorpe and Spooner, who over the course of the evening tell us three different stories relating to that word. The first concerns two policemen in the late 1970s (‘or early eighties’). A man has thrown himself in-front of a train, and the task of recovering the various components of his body falls to them. In another story, a young girl plunges into an icy lake and is found by her mother on the cusp of death, a tale that is told with such a gut-wrenching attention to detail (such as the image of her tiny snowsuit filling with ice-cold water) that it makes your skin crawl. The third story is the one in which Thorpe and Spooner’s imaginations really seem to take flight, though. Reminiscent of Forced Entertainment’s Tomorrow’s Parties, it imagines a future in which death is no longer a worry. People just won’t stop living. ‘Death’ is simply another word for regeneration. Two men, accompanied by a ninety-year old son, hop in their self-driving car and go to the Death Clinic. Inside a room, the walls of which change colour with every second, their bodies regenerate and they are made young again, ‘like painting over a tooth’.
Between these stories, Thorpe and Spooner play the piano and guitar, singing cabaret-esque pieces on the nature of death. There is even an educational interval in which we are taught how to correctly carry out CPR. Thorpe and Spooner are vulnerable throughout. When we first see them they are in vests and boxer shorts, resembling bodies in a morgue. Save for a keyboard, a guitar and some chairs the stage is bare, ensuring that the focus is at all times and what is being said. Anyone familiar with Thorpe’s other plays, such as There Has Possibly Been An Incident, will know that Thorpe is fundamentally a storyteller, using the power of words and imagination to tell vivid snapshots of lives we aren’t leading. And what beautiful words they are! Spooner and Thorpe’s language is so detailed as to be profoundly moving. From the haunting description of tiny footprints in the snow, and the image of severed limbs bundled into a black bag, the piece has a haunting quality which foregrounds the themes of life and death.
Watching the show is a very personal experience, which makes the task of assigning it a difficult one. You will feel a lot during Am I Dead Yet?, and even when the show could veer into pretentious territory the sheer honesty with which Thorpe and Spooner perform keeps the piece grounded and emotionally intimate. And without ruining the surprise, the final song – with a certain participatory twist – is one of the most moving experiences I have had in a theatre in a long, long time. Death is a topic which we are all, in some way, connected to, and while I was initially hesitant, Am I Dead Yet? handles the subject matter with such honesty and kindness that, while the show may be about what comes after, all I was focused on was the present.
- By Chris Thorpe and Jon Spooner in consultation with Dr Andy Lockey
- Director: Amy Hodge
- Cast: Chris Thorpe and Jon Spooner
- The Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Birmingham
- 11 May – 13 May 2017
- Review by Harry Tennison
- 12 May 2017