Review: The Reunion(?) – ‘a subversive new take on the classic murder mystery’

The Oxford Revue's latest show builds up to a brilliant punchline.

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A group of figures stand above a dead body.
Photographer: Tommy Hurst

The opening night of the absurd comedy The Reunion(?) had your reviewer and the rest of the audience in fits of laughter for a good ten minutes—the last ten minutes. If the play were a joke, these last ten minutes of comedic gold would be the punchline to a good 40 minutes of setup. Of course, the play was littered with little knock-knock jokes, dirty ditties, intentionally awful puns throughout—sometimes to the extent that I suspected there was a quota to be met. But the real comedic force was the plotline which builds up slowly with thorough character development, culminating in a series of genius Chekhov-inspired twists and turns which catch the audience by surprise. This is when the play really comes alive.

This subversive new take on the classic murder mystery genre revolves both in terms of plot and mise-en-scène around the cadaver of billionaire Sebastian Coxcomb (though I heard Cockskin), played by Tommy Hurst, which has recently been admitted to the aptly named funeral home Cloak and Hearse. Although you probably won’t guess whodunnit, events unfold in a predictable yet intriguing fashion, becoming increasingly ridiculous—just like the disparate cast of characters who are introduced one by one with extraordinary back-stories and captivating asides.

Energetic acting from each member of the Oxford Revue produces a devilish contrast to the darkness of the story line and serves to imbue each character with its own distinct brand of quirk. I must commend Kathryn Cussons, who plays Coxcomb’s wife Jennifer, and above all Bernard Visser, who plays George, for their rare mastery of their characters’ accents. Good rehearsing and a refreshing lack of first-night mishaps allows the discord amongst these bereaved souls to confuse your attempts to identify the killer.

Inevitably, a few of the many jokes peppered through the play tonight met with a reception that was painfully flat, especially before the audience had had a chance to warm up. But the troupe would soldier on seamlessly like professionals. Although not quite reaching Gary Oldman’s level, special mention must go to Tom Saer and Angus Moore who play the eponymous funeral directors. A hilarious dynamic emerges between Tom playing Cloak, an enthusiastic Frankenstein-wannabe, and the desperate attempts of Angus’ character, Hearse, to control his co-worker and keep a lid on the chaos that ensues.

The sound and lighting of the stage is flawlessly executed. Before the play, the claustrophobic Burton Taylor Studio’s stage eerily lit with organ music resonating – but these are remakes of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and other pop songs, cleverly hinting at the morbid quirkiness of what’s to come. The sparse decoration that befits a struggling funeral home helps to create a spooky atmosphere as does the single spotlight focused on the corpse. Will Hayman, director of sound and lighting design, is clearly adept at his job and he makes cautious use of his skills by deferring some sound effects to the actors on stage for added comic effect.

For a play with such ridiculous plot twists, The Reunion(?) has rather stern origins. Writer Tommy Hurst adapted one of his more serious works on toxic masculinity and the influence of greed with the help of fellow co-writer Bernard Visser and comic inspiration drawn, worryingly, from a real-life funeral parlour. The duo let the play remain a parable of sorts, but the main draw is the humour. All in all, The Reunion(?) is a compelling antidote to Trinity stress with fast-paced, laugh-a-minute banter – but beneath all the jokes offer a sliver of the original moral tale of greed, especially religious and corporate greed, which is still annoyingly relevant to today’s society.

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