Love in later life is the heart of this funny and touching comedy drama, brought to life by three adept leading ladies.
Ida, Lucille, and Doris are three 1980s New York Jewish widows who meet every month to drink tea, gossip, and go to visit the graves of their former husbands – hence the plays slightly misleadingly macabre title.
But as time has past since their dear departed’s despatches, their views on moving on have diverged: Lucille (Julie Benfield) is keen to play the field, while Doris (Gill Tichborne) remains unflinchingly devoted, with Ida (Mandy Kiley) somewhere in between.
All that changes when on one of their cemetery visits they bump into local butcher Sam (David White), who becomes a new target for Lucille but develops into a deeper connection for Ida.
This is a play of conversations and there are some witty exchanges in the back and forth between the three women, with all the cattiness of best friends – Claire Stretton’s direction keeps this sharp and pacey. There are several laugh out loud moments, especially in a later scene showing the aftermath of a drunken night out.
Benfield and Tichborne demonstrate great range, as we find out more about their characters’ real lives and motivations. Ivan Menchell’s script doesn’t quite do enough to explain Ida’s journey, but Kiley brought a strong portrayal of her tentative steps back to romance.
Unusually for the Sewell Barn, which has a sort of thrust stage, the set cuts off one side of the auditorium. While detailed and beautifully constructed, it may have worked better with a less literal set: for example, rarely a fan of projections, I could have done without the image of the New York skyline on the backwall for the cemetery scenes.
Death is never an easy topic but this play tackles it with a frankness and humour that is very welcome, and emphasises that there is no right answer to how to respond to loss – and we would all do well to take a beat before judging those who are trying to find their way.
- The Cemetery Club continues at Sewell Barn Theatre until August 12, 2023.