Review: Don’t Send Flowers at White Bear Theatre

It’s not easy to talk about death… but unfortunately for the three characters in Emily Garside’s Don’t Send Flowers, they don’t get a choice. A series of encounters between Grace (Karen Barredo), Joanne (Kathryn Haywood) and Louis (Kyle Matson) begins in their therapist’s waiting room, but the conversations they have elsewhere prove to be just as beneficial – especially the ones that involve cake.

We know early on that Don’t Send Flowers is not going to have a happy ending. Eight years after first being diagnosed with a brain tumour, Joanne’s getting her affairs in order after receiving the news that nobody wants to hear. Grace is struggling to deal with the imminent loss of her dad, and Louis is realising that all his years of medical training haven’t come close to preparing him for the harsh reality of watching someone he loves slowly dying from cancer. Subject matter like this could easily have made for a thoroughly depressing couple of hours, but in fact Don’t Send Flowers is quite the opposite; of course it’s a sad story, but at the same time it’s also surprisingly funny and heartwarming, and above all, it feels genuine. Writer Emily Garside has described the play as deeply personal, and it really shows. There’s nothing formulaic about the characters or how they respond to what they’re going through – often the story doesn’t go in the direction you expect, but those twists and turns don’t feel forced, and references to the likes of Friends and Andrew Lloyd Webber make it all that bit more relatable (well, to me, at least).

That credibility also comes across in the production, directed by Jess Frieze, with three excellent performances from Karen Barredo, Kyle Matson and Kathryn Haywood. The dynamic between the characters is compelling, but so too are the moments where they turn away and speak directly to the audience, giving us brief glimpses into the therapy sessions where they reveal the truths they can’t say to each other. Again, these moments flow seamlessly as part of the action, never taking us out of the story but rather adding an extra layer of depth and meaning to it. This is enhanced by the set, which consists of a chaotic jumble of pictures, notes, articles, flyers – each of which has its own unique significance within the story.

As the title suggests, the play’s central theme is how we deal with death – both before and after it actually happens – and the understanding that everyone reacts differently because, just as with the art that Joanne loves so much, there is no right or wrong way to look at it. Laughing, crying, raging, eating cake, getting drunk, having sex, putting your dead loved one’s ashes in a bag for life… they’re all acceptable responses, especially if they help. And maybe that’s why, far from leaving the theatre feeling depressed or anxious, it’s more likely that you’ll walk away feeling uplifted (though I can’t promise there won’t also be tears). Don’t Send Flowers is a really thoughtful and enjoyable piece of new writing, sensitively presented by a talented team, and definitely one to check out this week if you can get along to the White Bear.

Don’t Send Flowers is at the White Bear Theatre until 5th September.

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