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Colder Than Here

Evening Standard, 9th February 2005, Matthew Sweet

Laura Wade’s melancholy comedy stars Margot Leicester , a middle-class woman with six months to live. You can tell she’s got six months to live because every time she reappears on stage, her hair is tied a little more tightly. You can tell she’s middle-class because she has a house in Leamington Spa, a chartered surveyor husband (Michael Pennington), two daughters (Georgia Mackenzie and Anna Madeley), a cat named after a Tolkien character and a strong yen for a biodegradable coffin.

Once Myra has given a jolly PowerPoint presentation on her funeral plans, ‘Colder Than Here’ gets down to business, offering death as a cure for emotional reticence, sisterly discord – and even a moribund marital sex life.

The dialogue is frequently witty and mostly plausible – with the gruesome exception of a scene in which Mackenzie is obliged to explain her state of mind with an epic simile about walking upstairs with an armful of washing. And the performances are deftly done: Pennington makes smart work of a speech in which he explains his family’s predicament to a call-centre worker on the end of the phone.

But the play itself, despite the presence of death, love and sex, is disappointingly weightless. Something better suited, perhaps, to an afternoon on Radio Four than a night out at the Soho Theatre – and listened to, quietly, at home.

The Times, 11th February 2005, Ian Johns

With its spry wit, mellow mood and middle-class milieu, Laura Wade’s dialogue-driven new play could easily be seen as better suited to an afternoon drama slot after ‘The Archers’. But if you shut your eyes, you’d miss the poignant moments of physical contact that infuse the gentle, melancholy humour of the play.

Without sentimentality or melodrama, ‘Colder Than Here’ evokes the tension and heartache of a family facing up to the imminent death of a loved one. Myra Bradley (Margot Leicester) has only six months to live but she’s keeping busy by arranging a biodegradable, woodland burial for herself.

Without realising it, her efforts to make her departure as trouble-free as possible – backed up by an amusing PowerPoint presentation – have left her husband and two grown-up daughters with nothing to do but address their own problems.

Alec (Michael Pennington) is a chartered surveyor so self-contained that he can’t even listen to his beloved Brahms if other people are in the room. Jenna (Anna Madeley) is the needy daughter with constant boyfriend problems and a bulimic past. Married Harriet (Georgia Mackenzie) is her older, self-assured sister, slowly cracking under the strain of seeing her mother, the glue of the family, weakening while her cardboard coffin comes to dominate the living room.

Wade can make telling points through seemingly inconsequential details. With Myra no longer doing the shopping, buying the wrong cat food has led to the family pet doing a runner. It only takes Alec to say “I can’t really do problems” to sum up a life of emotional reticence and indecisiveness.

Naomi Wilkinson’s set, raised above real soil, is a curious mixture of house and parkland with trees sprouting by the sofa and record player.  But a sense of growth is appropriate as the play shows how Alec and Myra start to bridge the gap in a marriage of separate beds and Jenna matures into what one suspects will be the emotional rock of the family.

The performances are beautifully pitched in Abigail Morris’s production. Leicester is a frail but still wilful presence, Mackenzie freezes before our eyes and Madeley’s clenched body language loosens up as she sorts her life out. Pennington makes a phone call to get the long-broken boiler fixed a heartbreaking monologue as Alex’s suppressed pain seeps into his frustration.

This is a low-key drama that some may feel is dramatically underwhelming, with no profound insights. But it’s still a deft exploration of family dynamics – and without a single shouting match. With another play opening this month at the Royal Court, Wade is clearly a playwright on the rise.

The Guardian, 12th February 2005, Brian Logan

Myra has bone cancer; she has been given about six months to live. Her family would prefer not to think about it – but the subject is hard to avoid when mum turns her funeral plans into a PowerPoint presentation. There may be a burial afoot, but if Myra has her way, it won’t be of heads in the sand.

Laura Wade’s play is set in the limbo between the death sentence and the death itself. How does the knowledge of one’s imminent demise, or that of a loved one, affect the living of one’s life? Myra (Margot Leicester) spends her last days dictating how her absence should be coped with. She buys the cardboard coffin and counsels husband Alec on his love life. Daughter Jenna practises withholding confidences from mum, a rehearsal of bereavement. Alec focuses on fixing the boiler, because “the least he can do is let her die in the warm”.

In Abigail Morris’s production, Wade’s treatment of this domesticated death is low-key, reflective and funereal of pace. Myra’s resignation casts a pall over proceedings; I would have welcomed a flash of rage against the dying of the light. But Wade makes no concessions to drama. She is faithful to the mundane passage of everyday life, as the family soldier on and Myra’s time runs out.

On occasion, ‘Colder Than Here’ feels too literal, like an inventory of the emotional, and sometimes biological, processes surrounding death. But it’s leavened by wit and no little wisdom. I loved Alec’s excuse for paying so little attention to his dying wife: “A watched pot never boils.” And Wade is strong on the way that death (if only temporarily) makes us re-evaluate life. It pierces the heart to see Michael Pennington’s Alec plant a hesitant kiss – his first for how many years? – on his wife’s forehead. His is one of four sound performances in a play that, far from flinching in the face of death, explores how we might make peace with it.

The Sunday Times, 13th February 2005, John Peter

Laura Wade’s play is a 90-minute masterpiece, a jewel, dark but translucent. It is a play of love, death and grief: the grief that is hardest to bear, because it begins before the loved one dies. Myra (Margot Leicester) is dying of bone cancer, and she is organising her funeral: burial in woodland, a cardboard coffin decorated with stars, a cushion inside. Oh, and she wants to lie on her side, the way she does when she sleeps. Her husband, Alec (Michael Pennington), is in the greatest pain, because he can’t cope with, still less express, emotion; and Pennington’s face, puckered with grief, terror and loneliness, is an unforgettable study in isolation. He and Leicester are giving the greatest performances of their distinguished careers; great in their simplicity and their sense of complete understanding. The actors are so steeped in the body and soul of their roles that their acting seems to be beyond technique. There are two daughters – Jenna (Anna Madeley), the difficult, troubled one, and Harriet (Georgia Mackenzie), the organised, competent one – and Myra grieves for them both. This is a time when everything hurts, whatever you so, say, think or feel. Brahms is Alec’s favourite composer, and his chamber music, all aching warmth, plays between scenes: the perfect accompaniment to Abigail Morris’s delicate but ruthlessly precise production, and to this moving, funny, brave and beautiful play.

Metro, 14th February 2005, Maxie Szalwinsaka

There’s nothing chilly about ‘Colder Than Here’: humour keeps breaking through the cloud that hangs over the play. Myra has six months to live. She has bone cancer and, with the reluctant help of her husband and two grown-up daughters, she is planning the perfect funeral.

As the four of them chat, bicker and debate which woodland site Myra should be buried in Laura Wade gives us a portrait of a family facing change and loss. According to Myra, dying is “easier if you find the funny side”. Wade does find it, thought her drama is a shade too reasonable about grief. Occasionally we feel as if we’ve been here before. The family house has structural problems and a broken boiler: this is ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ territory. But Wade brings her characters to life and explores how family members take it in turns at losing and holding it together.

Before you know it, Abigail Morris’s set is pleasingly autumnal. And Margot Leicester gives a lovely performance as Myra.

Time Out, 16th-23rd February 2005, Rachel Halliburton

To say that Laura Wade’s drama puts the fun into funeral is to belie the teasing subtlety of its humour. As Complicite’s ‘A Minute Too Late’ at the National Theatre proves, death is a fertile ground for several kinds of laughter, and Wade gently uses her wit to probe the fragile structure of a family braced for grief.

Margot Leicester plays Myra, the mother and family linchpin whose diagnosis with terminal bone cancer has led to some rebellious reflections on how she wants to organise her death. A computer program proclaims with a fanfare her decision to have a decorated cardboard coffin, and throughout her decline she displays a Machiavellian skill in trying to teach her husband and two daughters how to continue communicating after she has gone.

True, there have been more bizarre approaches to death, documented both in Jessica Mitford’s ‘The American Way of Death’ and in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘The Loved One’. But Wade’s skill is in showing the way Myra’s impending death radically remodels the identities of those who love her. Anna Madeley’s spicily insecure Jenna suddenly reveals herself as the emotionally strong member of the family, while Georgia Mackenzie’s brusque, efficient Harriet is forced to acknowledge the cracks in her psychological armour.

Occasionally, repetitiveness or an over-laboured metaphor weakens the play. However – and I write this as someone who has just lost a parent to cancer – it is a perceptive, refreshing approach to a painful and complex subject.

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