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“As the starting point for a play the notion of having Death seek an apprentice at the local hiring fayre does set the tone for a potentially interesting plot development. The fact that the chosen apprentice, Mort, is a somewhat gormless youth not even fit for cesspit cleaning, gives us an early clue that his apprenticeship will not be without incident. The characterisation of Death as the deadpan deliverer of some very funny one liners is the backbone of this play, as I suspect it is in the novel. It is Death’s stage reliability and the absolute centrality of Death’s importance to the play that legitimizes all the peripheral activities, which vary from occasional hilarity through mild amusement to just plain silliness. Had Death not delivered his lines so well this play may not have worked as well as it did.
Perhaps I should declare a conflict of interest since I have not been able to connect with Terry Pratchett’s novels and sense of humour. The challenge to one’s perception of death that is presented by Death’s onstage persona is genuinely funny; the gathering of wizards with woolly beards and their parade ground haranguing by Albert was also funny (with Rincewild’s articulate but nuanced delivery particularly so), as was the exaggerated courtesy between the Far Eastern protagonists each of whom knew they were being offered a poisonous dish; but the pre-coronation dithering and the Town Crier’s confusion were definitely not. I pick these out since I remember them but I don’t think these were isolated examples of silliness. In fact, Act One was nowhere near as funny or enjoyable as Act 2 partly because of the appearance of the wizards in Act 2 but mostly, I suspect, because the plot in Act 1 didn’t seem to be going anywhere. It was only Mort and Ysabell’s quest to stop the movement of the dome and Albert’s rebellious attack on Death that gave this play its shape. What was also curious was the relative absence of Death’s appearance during Act 2. Surely a scene showing him trying to have a good time, or at least reporting on his time, with the wench he met in the street, would have been a goldmine of potential amusement.
Having said all this, afficionados of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld probably didn’t care and filled in the gaps with their local knowledge of the novel or at least the genre. Given the script was what it was the production worked well enough. The set was very well conceived, the scene changes flowed, with appropriate incidental music, colourful costumes and good lighting. Richard James, as Death, was the standout performer, despite us not being able to see his face and having his movement restricted by the mask and gloves. His fluent, yet measured delivery, without a trace of regional accent, was flawless. Michael McDonagh’s principal debut as Mort was good, his unruly mop of curly hair and skinny legs fitting the bill perfectly. Jim Crozier, always reliable, did justice to Albert and Jennifer Burchett delivered a delightfully feisty teenaged Ysabell, with staccato movements, asymmetric bunches and black looks. Natalie Paluzzo made for an enigmatic Princess Keli and Peter Jeary’s Cutwell was suitably distracted as the phoney wizard.
The full Friday night audience suggests their appetite for Terry Pratchett is greater than mine. No doubt this is my loss.”
Stewart Adkins, NODA