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A dark comedy lifting the curtain on death

Modest Genius Theatre Company's poster for its play Dying to Please You

Comedy can make sad moments in a scene seem all the more profound. When actor Tess Cartwright’s partner Vid Warren died aged just 25 in February 2015, it seemed right to create something from the experiences they had shared. And so their journey became a touring play that’s been described as mortally funny.

“There had been a lot of laughter between us, from Vid’s diagnosis to it becoming terminal,” says Tess. “We used comedy to diffuse the pain.”

Fresh from a run in her home town of Bristol, Tess’s theatre company Modest Genius is taking the show – Dying to Please You – on the road.

Audiences are handed tissues when they arrive at theatres to watch the play, which will be staged at venues in Trowbridge, Leeds and Sheffield from May 9, coinciding with Dying Matters Awareness Week. It’s also coming to theatres in Corsham and Basingstoke in June.

“It’s a rollercoaster ride,” says Tess, “and there’s something about comedy that can be disarming. You think about things more because you have a visceral reaction. You don’t cry in as many ways as you laugh.”

Performance artist and beatboxer Vid had already been diagnosed with brain cancer when Tess formed her theatre company, but the play began to take shape in the weeks following his death.

Inspired by memories of their time together and words she wrote while Vid, her partner of four years, was dying, Tess and her theatre company colleagues Tristan Green and Sidney Robb began creating a play.

“I came into our rehearsal and said, this is something I want to explore,” says Tess. “I knew I wanted to find the comedy in the situation, but didn’t know how, or even if it was a good idea.”

The cast of Dying to Please You enacting a scene from the play

Switching from moments of deep sadness to hilarity, the play reflects that grief, like humour, touches us in many different ways.

“Half the audience may be laughing at one joke while the others are shell-shocked, then the opposite will happen in another scene,” says Tess.

“We are not mocking death, but bringing light to it. The show is non-linear, because that’s how it is to be grief-stricken. We’ll cut from cast members performing, to memories of me and Vid, as I tell the audience what happened – from writing his will, to how he felt about his illness and how he approached death.”

Doctors and nurses and have been among appreciative audiences to have enjoyed the play, which has also had support from holistic cancer care organisation Penny Brohn UK. The charity provides support, therapy and wellbeing events and retreats, helping people to live well, with cancer. Vid described the support it gave him and Tess as “a total blessing.”

Funeral directors are also often in the audience, too, and feature in the drama.

“They really enjoy it, because they see death every day. They aren’t morose people trudging along with people’s sadness, but appreciate comedy and see death as a part of life,” says Tess, who has also been touched by messages of support from the bereaved.

“Someone wrote to me after seeing the play: ‘I’m not afraid to die anymore.’” she says.

“That’s exactly what I want from the show and after going through that with Vid, I feel the same. Tess Cartwright on a day out with partner Vid WarrenTess and Vid

“For the bereaved, those left behind, I want them to know I get it. This is how it feels. You can’t explain it. You shouldn’t be judged by the things you laughed at, the regrets you had, or the arguments you still feel you were right about. A lot of friends drift away, or feel too much time has passed if they didn’t say ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ at the time. I want everyone to feel comforted that that’s part of the journey.”

The play has also inspired many people to meet Vid himself, through the vivid and inspiring blog he wrote, called Dealing with Cancer .

“I have always lived from the heart and have tried to inspire others to do the same,” he wrote, as he invited friends to join him in a party when his time grew shorter.

“He had a goodbye party for hundreds of people before he died,” says Tess.

“He was really respectful to himself and the people around him and saw death as a part of his life. He didn’t want us to be sad, although of course we were.”

Vid’s parents are big fans of the play and regularly attend performances, always sitting in the front row. “They have been very supportive of the play – and they find it funny,” says Tess.

“If they can, then it’s accessible to anyone.”