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At The Wake. Riverhead Theatre Louth, 28th February 2022

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

At The Wake

Elaine Howells

Riverhead Theatre Louth

March 3rd – 5th 2022

At The Wake is a new full-length play written by Elaine Howells. Its performance is long overdue as it should have been performed in 2021 but was delayed for obvious reasons. It is the winner of Louth Playgoers’ Scratch Competition voted for by the audience and is a deliciously dark comedy about family secrets. Directed by John Hewer who also appears as one of the three brothers in the play, and Co-Director Joel Howard , it treads a fine line between a soapy drama and a farce with “shock” revelations galore and intrigue involving some of society’s “best” and brightest.

The family are gathered following the funeral of patriarch Stanley Hepplethwaite, an imposing figure who strode like a colossus in life and looms like the Grim Reaper in death as a large portrait in ceremonial robes stares down in judgment throughout the play.

Stanley had three sons, Nigel, Gordon, and Jeffrey.

Nigel, as played by Hewer has risen through the ranks as a police officer with a private passion for building model submarines. In a typically adept comic performance Hewer conveys the pomposity of a man promoted beyond his capability and suggest that his rise is due to influence rather than ability.

Gordon, played by Phillip Marshall Jr, has ascended the heights of politics to become Mayor. Marshall is a bluff, bombastic figure with a gruff Yorkshire accent that bullies those around him and believes himself to be the most alluring man in any room he enters. He seems to forget the adage “Who needs a burger when you have steak at home” and boasts about his prowess with the ladies despite protestations to the opposite coming from his wife that suggests his “Tiger” is more of a “Kitten”, so to speak.

Finally, Geoffrey, played by James Burgess, has climbed the ranks of the church to become a Bishop. Bishop Geoffrey has his eyes on higher office and is already greasing the palms of those who can assist his further progress. This man of God is not all that he appears at first and is, like his brothers, a product of nurture rather than nature. Burgess is confident in the role and offers a physical contrast to his brothers. If any brother was to enter the Church, it was to be Geoffrey. Each has risen by somewhat dubious means, to the heights of their respective professions and grotesque as they may be, has the wife each deserves.

Nigel’s wife Charlotte, played with relish by Rebekkah Hardy, is a bit of a tarty gold digger who tolerates her husband as it allows her to gain access to the finer things in life and she excels in driving Nigel insane with her deliberate provocation and sniping at him to undermine her husband’s authority. There is no doubt who wears the trousers in their family – metaphorically of course, as Charlotte adores wearing the shortest dresses or skirts, she can get away with!

Gordon’s wife Sophie is a sexually frustrated minx, who suspects that Gordon is playing away but also enjoys the high life too much to walk away. She endures a life of dissatisfaction in exchange for her existence as a prime socialite. Megan Mapletoft brings an admirable energy to the role and enjoys humiliating her husband. She delights in chasing the potential fortune left by Stanley and is anticipating the chance to holiday in the sun and run naked and free on a beach in the Bahamas.

In a wonderfully subtle performance as Geoffrey’s mousey wife Esme, Katherine Briggs excels. An ever-present, silent witness to events on stage, blending into the background saying nothing conveying thoughts, emotions, shock and outrage through her body language and facial expressions it is a masterclass in comic timing and acting. Her put-upon demeanour needs no verbal interaction.

The family matriarch and the rock offering stability to all is the mother, Pat Hepplethwaite, wife of the late Stanley. Pat is played with authority and a delicious succulence by Julia Burnett. At the outset, far from offering comfort to her adult family, she rocks them to their very core with a series of bombshell revelations that kickstart the story and sets the audience on a rollercoaster ride. Burnett shows that Pat is, and never was, a shrinking violet. She knew her husband better than anyone else and is now prepared to move on rapidly in his absence.

Her attention is on another man, Joe Stone, played by Derek Hodges in a languid, laid-back performance. Joe is a family friend of many years’ standing and a former inmate who has enjoyed residence at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, much to Nigel’s consternation as a senior police officer. Joe and Pat have plans and they shock the family beyond belief as the play progresses.

The final cast member is the evergreen comic actor Jerry Smith as Hector Shufflebottom, a solicitor who has attended with the express intention of reading the deceased’s will, or at least trying to. He is a delight to watch as he becomes embroiled in the farcical shenanigans pushed from pillar to post in order to accommodate the awful offspring and their battling spouses.

Unusually for the Louth Playgoers, this play will embark on a mini tour starting later this week with three nights at the Riverhead Theatre and will later go on to Caistor town Hall and the Broadbent Theatre in Wickenby. If you want an evening to distract from the all-too serious world events of 2022, then look no further than Elaine Howells’ delightful new comedy drama At The Wake.

Andy Evans 28th February 2022

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