Learning to live with the dead

Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

October 16 – November 6

“You have to write everything down,” newbie funeral director Steve (Mitchell Bourke) is told by a colleague on his first callout. Thankfully for theatre-goers, Toowoomba born playwright Steve Pirie has done exactly that, with “Return to the Dirt”, winner of the prestigious Queensland Premier’s Drama Award (QPDA), the largest playwriting award in the country, which sees a guaranteed Queensland Theatre production of the winning play. The work, which has been inspired by his real experiences working in a funeral home is not only one of the best ever QPDA winners, but a very funny and moving night of entertainment.

In it, a playwright called Steve invokes a version of himself as he recalls his one year in Toowoomba where he traded his unemployed life as a struggling theatre artist for work in a funeral home as an undertaker. It is two weeks before Christmas in 2014 and Steve and his fiancé Claire (Sophie Cox) have a wedding to pay for, and so we see the story literally rotate, courtesy of the revolve stage design, through scenes from waiting room anticipation of his interview, and then the realities of his induction to the calling that becomes his day-in and day-out.

The narrative is framed by Pirie himself as The Playwright, recounting the events in asides to the audience while also critiquing the big business approach of the funeral industry. The credibility of the show’s commentary is enhanced by the device, however, it also enables his reflection on who he was and how he dealt with issues around mental health. And we see this complemented by creative choices such as the oversized suits that reflect young Steve’s youth and sense of never feeling fully at fit within himself.

The play brings with it big themes not just around death, but about finding one’s place in the world, the power of personal redemption and humility. Renee Mulder’s design elements mean that we are immersed into intimate experience of and connection with the story, not just through the stage’s proximity to the Bille Brown Theatre audience that could otherwise be lost in a big space, but also through its Act Two projections, which provoke active audience engagement towards appreciating the age range of deaths in the city, for all sorts of reasons.

While the work deals with a number of heavy themes, “Return to the Dirt” is a well-written, emotionally rich play that offers a refreshing take on a young man’s story, in what could easily have been clichéd. It is littered with identifiable small town allusions, not just to Toowoomba but regional areas everywhere and very real characters like there-for-everyone Deb (Jeanette Cronin), Steve’s older funeral director mentor. Every workplace in every town probably has a Deb; she tells her truth sometimes without consideration of social etiquette, and we love her because deep down it’s maybe ours too. And Cronin’s performance highlights her compassion and matter-of-factness in equal measure, effectively breaking the tension on many occasions to balance the show’s tone.  

The show is well-acted throughout, by performers who are all making their Queensland Theatre debut. Onstage for almost the entire time, Bourke is excellent as the young Steven, in increasing conflict between his personal demons and the psychological price of collecting and caring for bodies and interacting with grieving family members. The small ensemble handles the show’s revolving door of characters and props with ease, adding many moments of perfectly-pitched comedy, that ensures that even a well-timed background character wink can erupt the audience in laughter. And vibrant Act One scenes, in which The Playwright shares information about embalming, funeral insurance and alike, provide a buoyant balance with the pathos that follows after interval.  

“Return to the Dirt” is a big, layered play of two halves, however, under Lee Lewis’ direction, it rarely feels long until its bunny-hops to a conclusion. It is fascinating, confronting and comforting in its examination of what it means to die in the 21st century and with its universal themes and engaging presentation it can easily transfer to a season in any location. With “Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook” now postponed until next year, it also serves as perfect conclusion to the 2021 Queensland Theatre season, in thematic bookend with its opener “Our Town” in its universally human consideration of who we are and how we measure our lives.

Photos c/o – David Kelly