By Nicky Silver
The Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark St, London SE1 1RU
The main action begins and predominantly takes place in a hospital room, a thorough study in somewhat unsettling theatrical realism by set designer Jonathan Fensom. Rita is passing the time reading decorating magazines next to her dying husband Ben, deciding how to redecorate after he's gone. So far, so no-holds-barred. The two have an entirely antagonistic relationship that quickly turns into vicious comic sparring that has the audience in stitches. Still, it all feels a bit death/sitcom, especially when Lisa, Ben and Rita's daughter, enters and the conversation unnaturally escalates to a fever pitch.
It is a play that depends on what feels like a very New York Jewish rhythm of a rapid exchange of insults that rise into a concatenating cacophony and fall into utter despair in operatic waves. It comes into its own when the audience can see all four family members playing on each others' insecurities.
Consequently, the play allows the performances, which are truly riveting, to shine. Charlotte Randle's Lisa is utterly compelling, using a jittery energy to convey the sense of a woman always on the precipice of a breakdown – battling alcoholism, neurosis and feelings for an abusive ex-partner and yet so able to engender our complete sympathy.
And although death gets treated casually, even dismissively, labeled as 'not all that exciting' at one point, it acts as a catalyst triggering revelations in the lives of all these complex characters, so that the real magic and beauty seems to happen when the characters stop turning on each other, and begin to take aim at themselves. It is then that the play, quite upliftingly, becomes less about death and more about life.