“You have to write everything down,” newbie funeral director Steve (Mitchell Bourke) is told by a colleague on his first call-out. 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 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. So, we see the story rotate, courtesy of the revolving stage design, through scenes of anticipation of his interview and induction to his new calling.
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 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 see the audience immersed into the intimate experience of and connection with the story, especially through its Act Two projections.
Return to the Dirt is a well-written, emotionally rich play that offers a refreshing take on a young man’s story. It is littered with identifiable small town allusions, not just to Toowoomba, but to 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 because maybe she’s ours too. Cronin’s performance highlights her compassion and matter-of-factness in equal measure, breaking the tension to balance the show’s tone.
The show is well-acted throughout by performers that all make their Queensland Theatre debut. Onstage for almost the entire time, Bourke is excellent as the young Steven. He is 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 revolving door of characters and props with ease. They add many moments of perfectly-pitched comedy ensuring that even a well-timed background character wink can see the audience erupt in laughter. Vibrant Act One scenes, in which The Playwright shares information about embalming, funeral insurance etc., provide a buoyant counterpoint to the pathos that follows after interval.
Under Lee Lewis’ direction, Return to the Dirt is fascinating, confronting and comforting in its examination of what it means to die in the 21st century. With Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook now postponed until next year, it also serves as perfect conclusion to the 2021 Queensland Theatre season. It is a thematic bookend to its opener Our Town in terms of its universally human consideration of who we are and how we measure our lives.
It is playing at Bille Brown Theatre until 6th November, 2021.