Be Prepared, by Ian Bonar, at the Vault Festival (review)

Be Prepared tells of a man Tom’s memories of his father as he slowly comes to terms with his death, a brave one-man-show by the writer Ian Bonar and based on his own personal experience with his own father, and stories of his grandfather.  It is set within the framework of a Quaker funeral of a man named Matthew Chambers, whom he hardly knew. The only link between the two men is the fact that Matthew Chambers used to mistakenly phone Tom’s number, when meaning to phone the funeral home to discuss the funeral arrangements for his wife who ‘rolled off a cliff’ in a car.  This one wrong digit in the number becomes the reason why they repeatedly speak to each other on the phone, and in turn the reason why Tom attends the funeral.

Be Prepared

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Tom first gets up from a seat in the audience to say a few words about the man he never really knew and, awkwardly at first, plays tunes on his portable keyboard which he carries around the stage as he goes. This can feel uncomfortable, and partly is supposed to, but in this space at the Vault Festival it can also be hard to hear what is happening (at times it is hard to tell if the pounding beat is coming from next door’s show, or is part of this one).  The organ-playing is used too much. When he plays ‘Venus’ or ‘Yesterday’ there are reasons for it, and a tragi-comic effect is derived from it; but when he keeps on singing ‘It fits like a dream’ about the Aquascutum suit he has bought for the funeral, just like the one his dad was buried in, the atonal singing would have been more effective if it had been briefer.

Tom was a boy scout, hence the Be Prepared of the title, and in remembering his dad, he remembers him making the woggles for all the local scout packs. Not just any old woggle, he even made mega woggles!  The phrase is agreeable to the ear, and there is some other light humour, but it is never that funny.  It is clear from early on that Tom does not know how to deal with his own grief, summed up by: ‘My Dad has died and I’m fine’.  Then he admits that he tried to forget the day his dad died.  The difficulty in remembering his dad properly is an important aspect to Tom. He appears vexed not to be able to recall his father by that most evocative of senses, smell.  As that particular smell memory returns to him towards the end of the play, you believe that he is beginning to turn the corner in his trauma. It must be healing to talk about his father, especially within the context of another man’s funeral.

Ian Bonar delivers the piece with passion and empathy. It’s an intimate room and he manages to look us clearly in the eye whilst asking rhetorical questions, which gives a great directness. However, the overly-complicated multi-layering of funerals, which adds in flashbacks to the memories and knowledge of two different, now deceased men, dilutes the meaning somehow.  Bonar is keen to tackle the real pain of dementia, when people ‘stop being themselves’, and he then speaks out as the old man Matthew Chambers, voicing his confused memories about his own experiences in the war, meeting his wife and the injuries and post-traumatic after-effects.  But after a while it is not clear which memories belong to whom.

The play does have its touching moments, not surprising given the personal significance to the writer/performer, but with a simpler structure this man’s story of his grief at the death of his father, and the start of his slow road to recovery, could have been more powerful.

hattydaze rating: **/*****

This review originally appeared on Miro Magazine. With thanks to Miro for the reviewing tickets.  For more details about the Vault Festival, see the Festival website.

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