Hamilton Fringe 2016
It is the eve of Grace’s funeral. Her daughter Iris has reluctantly taken on the task of writing the eulogy, and has come up to the attic of her childhood home in search of inspiration. Like A Fly In Amber is a tender and honest musical about universal themes of bereavement, old age and the strength of family ties.
How do we deal with the death of a parent? This is a question that the vast majority of us will have to face at some point in our lives, and yet the taboos surrounding death, and our human proclivity for believing we are somehow resistant to tragedy, means that we will often put off processing such difficult hurdles until fate forces our hand. Luckily, we have developed some means of manoeuvring the minefields of emotion at a certain remove. One means is music, and another is theatre. Both can work marvellously on their own, but together – in the guise we know as musical theatre – they can prove extraordinarily effective at allowing us to channel these feelings. And here’s a case in point.
Like A Fly In Amber is a gentle and well-performed exploration of what makes a mother the most important, special person in the world. And not just this mother – any mother; the precise details of this mother-daughter relationship are painted blurrily enough to give us plenty of room for substituting our own loved ones for those depicted onstage, and yet are well-defined enough to allow us to believe in the fictional reality being presented. This is by no means an easy balance to strike, and it’s one that this production achieves superbly.
This is not an all-singing-all-dancing extravaganza, and all the better for it. Two actors – one playing Iris, the daughter struggling to compose her mother’s eulogy, and the other playing her mother Grace, caught in the theatrical hinterland between flashback and ghost – converse in warmhearted tones, and break frequently into song.
And boy how they sing. Both voices are beautiful, and the haunting harmonies they achieve between them strike deep at the emotions. Karen Kelm, who plays Iris and is also the playwright, has a particularly fine voice. I saw the production on the debut performance by Irene Slater as Grace, having replaced another actor, and she was occasionally a little hesitant but will no doubt grow into the part through the Hamilton Fringe run.
A favourite musical number of mine is the gorgeous I Can Lend You An Angel, with wonderful folk harmonies and a touching sentiment. Another stand-out moment is Pills, Pills, Pills – a surprise beat poetry / rap number listing all the different pills that doctors require you to take as you age. Somewhat less successful is the show’s over-ambitious title song, with harmonies so difficult that the actors don’t really seem to be enjoying themselves. There is just about enough variety in the musical styles and orchestrations to sustain us through thirteen numbers and eighty minutes…just about.
There is a welcome simplicity in the staging – there are two chairs, one representing the present, the other the past, and there is a permeable barrier between the two – the mother can comment on her daughter’s wranglings with the eulogy from beyond the grave, and the daughter can step into the mother’s world and relive moments from her mother’s last years. Occasionally I’m unsure whether these flashback scenes are intended to be true accounts of conversations they once had, or whether they are idealised conversations showing us what the daughter would like to have said if she could go back in time. But maybe that’s just because I’m British and we have a little more trouble putting our thoughts into words on the other side of the pond.
A particularly impressive aspect of this production is its unerring focus on the female story. It is written, directed (by Susanne de Pencier) and performed entirely by women, and the only male presences, or notable absences, are Grace’s long-time-deceased husband (the subject of another lovely song called How Did You Happen To Happen To Me?), and Iris’s brother, who pops up by phone and text message to help (or hinder?) the eulogy-writing process. As a male audience member, I feel far from excluded – this play is also about me, and my mother, and indeed my father, and the world in which I live – and I wish more artists and theatres would be this brave in presenting the female perspective.
Like a fly in amber, our lives are preserved once we die in the die-cast memories of our nearest and dearest. But like the eagles who nest annually in the tree outside Grace’s window, our legacy lies in the freedom we give our children to soar and explore. At least I think that’s what those particular metaphors were aimed at conveying. This is a rich and thought-provoking piece that will leave a different mark on everyone. I recommend it for its warmth, for its heart, and for some stand-out musical numbers.