Review: My Best Dead Friend (BATS Theatre)
Updated: Jun 2, 2022
A personal tragedy may not be the first thought that comes to mind when writing a storytelling comedy, or to use a brutally honest title to spell out what the show is about, but creators Anya Tate-Manning and Isobel MacKinnon do not shy away with this autobiographical story of friendship. Set in 1990s Dunedin, though dipping in and out of years after that, we learn about Tate-Manning's younger self, her escapades with her friends, and how they held together after one passed away.
When Tate-Manning first enters the stage, with house lights up and a baggy Backstreet Boys T shirt on, my first thought was that this was the typical opening night thank-you-for-coming speech before the show began. In fact, that was it beginning. The tone was set for a show that was not informal, but not strictly dramatic. Typical of storytelling, the fourth wall is broken and there is some audience interaction throughout, for example being asked to draw the characters based on Tate-Manning's description, that worked nicely to maintain this tone. This was sometimes stretched, particularly when one audience member was encouraged to stand up and sing as a character only to be followed by an awkward and long silence, but for the most part it works.
A good portion of the piece is taken to setting the scene - describing the history of Dunedin at rapid speed, a hilarious PowerPoint presentation on the Backstreet Boys, and even while describing other stories she draws a scene on the huge chalkboard behind her of the town. Taking this time to set the scene turned what is, in retrospect, a repetitively compact story, into a very intimate and lively play. The drawing of the chalkboard in particular was a stroke of genius - it really transformed the space and the set whilst keeping that sense of childhood and nostalgia.
What you really come for though, is Tate-Manning's personality. In the opening scene, she happily admits "this is actually a story mostly about me". That is very true, so a lot rests on her being an entertaining stage presence and an interesting relatable version of her younger self, all of which she delivers in spades, both in her performance and in her writing. In her writing she combines well-written and characterful comedy ("Anya is fine with sticking it to the man in theory, but in practice she's a little bit nervous") with genuine writing prowess ("They had just finished high school and the town was stinking ripe with possibilities"). In her performance she is full of excitement and optimism, she takes a positive approach to darker humour in the first few scenes (for example in her ramblings about Dunedin she describes a slave called Haynes, saying "the gold rush was really his time to shine" without an overtly sarcastic tone), which is both hilarious and endearing, and in turn makes the more melancholy moments later on all the more powerful.
The final scene of the piece, which I dare not spoil for anyone who may want to see it, was the highlight of the show, though in truth it did not feel quite as climactic as I may have expected. That really does not matter though - there is just so much to love about Tate-Manning's comedy drama. A love letter to an enduring friendship and of growing up, moving on and facing the harsh realities of the world, all to a "My Best Dead Friend" ought not to be missed. Four stars.