Some wag, with a cheeky nod to Wordsworth, once described the work of a newspaper obituary department as "emotion anticipated in tranquillity". It's a phrase that perfectly skewers the literal preposterousness of this business, in which the measured final verdict must be ready in advance of the sad event.
There's nothing remotely tranquil, though, about the obit office we see in The Obituary Show, brought to The Bush by the People Show performance group. Chalked up on the wall are the stakes on likely demises. It's 33/1 that Tim Henman will commit suicide by the end of the week, while, in the light of his recent acquittal, the odds are getting longer on Michael Jackson.
But then, this is rather a bizarre journalistic backwater - in some ways dustily old-fashioned (they still use electric typewriters) and in others like some celestial outpost (the spookily clued-up messenger keeps charging in to announce the names of the people who will need to have their obituaries published in a few days' time). Researching one of them, a worker pulls open the drawer of a filing cabinet, which discloses the cadaver of the person concerned - a nice visual twist on the idea of an obits office as a spectral mortuary.
In fictional works, the figure of obituarist tends to feature as a symbol of scavenging low self-esteem. It's no different in The Obituary Show, where the office chief (Gareth Brierley) is a disappointed would-be novelist who, in this journalistic pickling factory, is engaged in the parallel process of pickling his inadequate brains in whisky. An ace at coming up with natty headlines ("Glenn Miller - no longer 'In the Mood' after plane crash"), Amanda Hadingue's emotionally bruised deputy will leave no life of her own to be summarised if she doesn't take her existence off its self-protective hold-position.
None of this is very startling or original. There are some sequences of fitful, but genuinely haunting melancholy when an anonymous piano player dies and Brierley takes on a bet that he will be able to piece together a page-long obituary from the scant clues. This gives the central question posed by the piece: is it a measure of what a life was worth whether you wind up in three columns or in "two lines below the fold, no picture, and in northern editions only"? It struck me, as I watched this suggestive but unsustained show, that it can't be long before newspapers subject the deceased to a star-rating system.
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