Sometimes, as Steve Pirie’s play Return to the Dirt demonstrates, the best way to talk about death is through humour.

By Yen-Rong Wong.

Return to the Dirt

Steven Pirie in his play in the character of “The Playwright”.
Steven Pirie in his play in the character of “The Playwright”.
Credit: David Kelly

Content warning: This review contains mentions of suicide and self-harm.

For a play about death, Steve Pirie’s Return to the Dirt at Queensland Theatre is surprisingly funny. It’s also uniquely relevant to everyone who sees it, as we are all definitely going to die at some point. But it’s more than just an exploration of what happens after death – it’s a celebration and acknowledgement of the pleasures and hardships we experience before we kick the bucket.

Directed by Lee Lewis and based on the playwright’s experiences, Return to the Dirt charts a year in the life of a funeral director. Steve (Mitchell Bourke) has returned to Toowoomba with his fiancée, Claire (Sophie Cox), to save for their wedding. Pirie plays himself as “The Playwright”, providing narration, exposition and humour. Lighting by Ben Hughes and Christine Felmingham and sound by Julian Starr complement the way the production balances seriousness and levity: during Pirie’s introduction, he mentions that one day we will all go to sleep and open our eyes to… nothing – a declaration accompanied by a loud thud as the theatre falls into complete darkness.

The first act takes the audience through the basics of the funeral industry. With Deb (Jeanette Cronin) as his mentor, Steve learns to check the hospital tag for the correct spelling of the deceased’s name, document what they’re wearing and their personal effects, how to roll a body onto a pad slide, how to talk to the families and when to leave them alone – and to write everything down. We learn that some people die without their pants on, and that you can comfortably fit two bodies into the back seat of a Kia.

There’s a crash course in embalming, complete with a showgirl and a life-sized Operation figure. The character Steve meets Len (short for Glen), who works in the crematorium. “The Playwright” interjects with comments on the predatory nature of the funeral industry: funerals are expensive, as are coffins, and insurance can often cost more than the funeral itself, especially if the premium increases every year without you realising. Many companies see the industry as a cash cow; many have also been investigated by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Capitalism, it seems, hasn’t just taken over every aspect of life; it’s there in death, too – only this time, you’re not the one footing the bill.

This is exemplified by Greg (Chris Baz), the manager of the funeral home where Steve works. Baz plays this character with the right amount of smarm and arrogance: this is a man who insists on calling the families “customers” and suggests his employees upsell $80 commemorative portraits and other “memorabilia”. He doesn’t work weekends but expects his workers to be on call 24/7, and is constantly looking for ways to improve the business’s profit margins, even if it means overlooking the needs of grieving families. We’ve all encountered a manager like this – someone who doesn’t do any of the day-to-day work but who nevertheless assumes they know what’s best for the business.

Renée Mulder’s set is the very image of a funeral home, complete with white pillars and vases topped with flowers, and the turntable stage is a metaphor for the circular nature of life – how we have no choice but to keep walking, even when we’re exhausted by everything else life chooses to throw at us.

The audience follows Steve as he meets all sorts of people, alive and dead: a seemingly callous businessman from Singapore (Chris Baz), a mother caring for her child who has a brain tumour, and Lucy (Miyuki Lotz), a young woman grieving the loss of her Oma. Lotz displays extraordinary versatility playing a host of roles, including Jess, one of Steve’s friends from university who dies in a car crash because she’s too busy looking at her phone; Bec, a new employee at the funeral home; and the slightly homicidal wife of an older man who features in an advertisement for funeral insurance.

Deb is with him every step of the way. Cronin is at the centre of some brilliant physical comedy and her comic timing is always on point – whether she is cracking jokes with a straight face after a body has excreted its excess fluids all over Steve, or talking about MasterChef and The Voice when waiting outside the viewing room while the aforementioned businessman wails loudly over his dead father. Despite these antics, it’s clear she cares for him, too, forcing him to eat and asking him to call her when he gets home.

We are all frightened of death; it’s an uncanny phenomenon in that it often seems so far away – especially for young people – and yet could happen without warning at any moment. It’s this fear that makes comedy such a powerful tool for discussions around this issue. It cuts through our defences and forces us to consider issues that would otherwise be too painful to touch. The play’s comic elements don’t trivialise death, nor do they judge the actions of the dead or grieving.

But it’s a fine line. Death is traumatic, whether it’s dying itself or its effects on those left behind. Pirie doesn’t shy away from discussing suicide, self-harm and mental health-related issues. Humour plays an important role here, too, as it can alleviate the tensions associated with exploring such complex and sensitive issues.

Working nonstop, barely eating or sleeping, and without an outlet to express the complicated feelings that come with seeing dead people and looking after their families, takes a toll on Steve. Act two begins with a long weekend in which Steve and Deb pick up 21 bodies, including a child and a teenager who has died by suicide, as an increasingly frustrated Claire finds she is now essentially planning their wedding on her own.

But he does eventually pull himself together, and his interactions with Ellie (Aara Afraz) show just how far he has come. It is clear Steve’s year at the funeral home has not only changed the way he sees and thinks about death but also his outlook on life and living. Indeed, as Steve rebuilds himself, Pirie looks on proudly, in an almost fatherly manner, before handing him a pen, and telling him to “write everything down”. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling extremely grateful that he did. 

Return to the Dirt plays at the Bille Brown Theatre, Brisbane, until November 6 and will be live streamed from November 22-28.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 6, 2021 as "Dead funny".

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Yen-Rong Wong is a writer of creative nonfiction currently based in Meanjin (Brisbane).

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