Daughters Jenna and Harriet don’t get on and father Alec grunts and rustles his newspaper. So far, so My Family. But mother Myra is dying, and furthermore has decided that she wants to be buried in a cardboard coffin (to be coloured in by the family under her supervision) somewhere nice where they can have picnics. And to top it all off, the boiler is on the blink ...
Colder Than Here finds the humour as well as pathos in a mother’s slow death and a family’s slow rebirth during the process. Maggie Tagney as Myra begins briskly facing death in mum-is-coping-as-usual mode, shaking up her family with her decision to be buried in a cardboard coffin. Myra’s descent into illness is also a relinquishing of this role, and Tagney movingly suggests the ways in which this allows her to create a new kind of time for herself.
Augustina Seymour’s Jenna makes a similar kind of journey. Initially a mess, antsy and self-centred, she finds a more assured place in the world, and her family. Joanna Tincey’s Harriet begins as stuffy and conventional, but by the end of the play has found new depths in herself and in those around her.
Cleverly, Philip Rham’s sardonic husband Alec keeps his depths to himself for most of the play, making our witnessing his reaching out to Myra the more moving. His final rant to a call centre, after a play- and a belly-full of the boiler failing to work, is a showcase for some bravura comic timing.
Abigail Anderson’s assured direction makes the most of these redemptive character journeys, though the family’s initial dysfunction feels a little too smoothly resolved as a result. For the most part, though, the production brings out the play’s emotional heart whilst also managing to bring out its humour (not least in the wonderfully awkward powerpoint presentation Myra gives her family about her funeral).
Thomasin Marshall’s beautifully inventive set doubles as indoor and outdoor space, with an artfully brushed carpet pile suggesting light and shadows on grass and chairs with flowers springing up around them. The transitions between Myra’s potential graves and her suburban living room are smoothly executed via Jo Dawson’s atmospheric lighting design and Sanne Noppen’s sound.
Theatre by the Lake's Colder Than Here is far from a lukewarm experience; it's a funny and heartwarming production of a play well on the way to becoming a modern classic.