Most of the subjects we consider taboo are so because they are niche; abnormal and therefore unrelatable. Yet to my mind, the biggest cultural taboo is the one inevitable human experience. Death remains the unspeakable reality that is simply too terrifying to confront. But in his new solo-show, Ian Bonar takes the proverbial elephant by the trunk and drags it into the spotlight.
Framed as a Quaker remembrance service, Bonar and his electric keyboard take centre stage to pay tribute to Matthew Chambers. A man whose death has become irreversibly conflated with that of Bonar’s own father. Memories blur and time becomes fluid as Bonar re-enacts poignant scenes from his childhood intermingled with Mr Chambers’ war stories. Based upon the Bonar’s own experience of losing his father, the emotion is incredibly raw making it at times difficult to watch. The meta-Bonar is clearly suffering a breakdown, admitting that he is unable to leave the house and can’t remember when he last showered. His frenetic portrayal is filled with digression, apologies and sporadic outbursts.
Although this is reflective of the character’s psychological state, it is also a shrewd demonstration of the grieving process. Albeit a hyperbolised one. Of course there’s no standard experience of loss, but there are some ubiquitous responses which Bonar simulates fantastically. Fear, shame, regret, sadness, the reliving of the very best and very worst childhood memories and the recollecting of the most minor deathbed details are all portrayed with heartrending authenticity. Perhaps the most relatable expression of grief is Bonar’s repeated declaration “I’m fine” as he manically strums an 80s anthem on his keyboard.
Despite the seemingly haphazard nature of Bonar’s anecdotes, a vivid dual-narrative is pieced together throughout the one hour show. Rob Watt’s direction maintains a constant tension, occasionally spiralling into moments of incredible sentiment. It transpires that Bonar never met Mr Chambers; he was simply a wrong number that kept calling. I found Bonar’s re-enactments of these phone calls the most tragic element of the piece, as we soon realise that Mr Chambers is suffering from dementia. Despite their wholly virtual relationship, Bonar has somehow ended up organising Mr C’s funeral. The actor captures this set up superbly, relaying info such as the nation’s favourite dirge, or appropriate funeral wear. The banality of details is so familiar, the final attempt to do right by the deceased. But, as Bonar bluntly puts it, “What Mr Chambers would really want is to not be dead.” Such gems of unwitting gallows humour saturate the production, alongside Bonar’s adroit use of repetition and call-back.
Set in the ominously named ‘Cage’ of the Waterloo Vaults, a better location could not have been dreamt up. Dark and claustrophobic, it both reflects and exacerbates the sombre anxiety of the character. The occasional rumbling of trains overhead are a constant reminder that the audience is quite literally, six feet under.
Inkeeping with the subject matter, Be Prepared is a heavy going piece, but it is also quite beautiful. Bonar’s growing relationship with Mr Chambers is especially affirming. The daily phone calls give Bonar a sense of purpose and kinship as he hears the pensioner’s tales of war and romance. This is juxtaposed with Mr Chambers’ increasingly weakened mental and physical state. Despite spending large sections of the show in tears, I left feeling a debt of gratitude to Bonar for his solo-show. Laying his grief completely bare, Bonar confirms that death is something that even the most devout boy-scout can never be prepared for. But by talking about the experience and making it less taboo, we can feel less alone.
Showing as part of the 2018 VAULT Festival.
To find out more about this production or to book tickets please visit
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