Simon Smith's first play Fat Janet Is Dead, which won the Warehouse Theatre's International Playwriting Festival last year, is a character comedy, gentle in its absurdities and its shadows alike. These two threads are intertwined from the start, as we realise that Tricia Vincent has the thankless task of lying supine on stage for two hours as the corpse of the eponymous Fat Janet, discovered in her Abbey Wood flat on the last day of the 1970s by a pair of estate caretakers and "visited" a little while later by her garrulous neighbour Norma, who proves unable to stem the tide of her small-talk even when being sexually attended to.
Smith has a fine ear for comically inane exchanges and turns of phrase. Early in the first act, the gratuitously named Porky speculates of the late F.J., "Perhaps she isn't married," to which his partner Tom replies, "But there's a shed out the back!" A little while later, Norma apologises to Porky for raising the subject of his deceased spouse with the words, "I've gone and raked up your poor wife." Jessica Dromgoole provides exactly the right kind of direction for such a comedy, concentrating on the ordinariness of the language and expression, and allowing light and darkness to flow naturally from that source.
Carl Davies as Tom seems a less gruff version of his namesake Windsor, all kindly Cambrian rumble but seldom if ever cracking a grin. Roger Frost's Porky is timid and diffident, repressing his family tragedies to the point where all that usually emerge from his mouth are inconsequentialities. Norma's loquacity could be allowed to become overpowering, but Susan Porrett shrewdly keeps her delivery on a tight rein in order to blend in rather than dominate events.
The play is on less sure ground in the matter of what its publicity material refers to as "gentle allegory". True, Fat Janet is later joined on the stage by a dead cat significantly named Mr Callaghan, but as the second act progresses one is unsure exactly what kind of community is passing with the decade. Smith also labours to create an ending which, in including all three characters proper, smacks of overkill. Despite this, it amounts to a solid playwriting début: thoughtful rather than clever, it eschews the granite hardness more characteristic of writers of this generation.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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