Thankfully I am now old enough to not be scared of Death. I try and live my best life every single day. Yet it’s inevitable that Death will eventually visit us all and one day we will all need a funeral director for ourself and others in our families. When Steven Pirie needed a job in his 20’s this is exactly what he found himself doing. Little did he know this would prove to be fodder for his burgeoning career as a playwright.
Steven wove his personal story into a play which then won the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award for 2020 – 2021. It is now playing at the Bille Brown Theatre. Steven even wrote in a starring role for himself. Return to the Dirt is a gentle comedy with a touch of satire which Director Lee Lewis said, “ Is the play we all need to see right now. “
It’s a poignant and often humorous look at life’s journey. We laughed, cried, sighed and gasped as Steve poured out this story from the heart. It’s a universal theme which will speak to every audience member in a different way depending on their own experiences. We’d just had our son’s wedding so could relate to the wedding aspects. Another audience member had just been to a funeral so saw it in a different way. Even though the subject matter sounds heavy there were enough funny moments to lighten the load.
Many in the audience were familiar with the Toowoomba references and the unique settings. That feeling of going home for work after living in the city provided much fodder for laughs. Steve guides us through the story as ‘ The Playwright ‘ and his empathetic presence helps ground the play. His honesty and deep sense of humanity shine throughout. His year spent tending to the dead opened Steve’s eyes to what awaits us at the end and what it means to truly live.
I love a play which begins with one of the actors on stage. It instills that sense of anticipation. Steve was sitting as if in a waiting room as we entered, calmly gazing into the audience, reading a magazine or deep in thought. As the lights dimmed we realised he would guide us through this night as narrator and an older, perhaps wiser version of the Steve we see on stage. His calm and honest presence kept the play moving beautifully.
Young Steve was played by Mitchell Bourke, on debut for Queensland Theatre. What a talent! He really is the perfect Steve. His lively and innocent face changes as the play goes on and the realities of the job take its toll. He is present and empathetic as he goes from gauche newcomer to experienced funeral director. His skilful portrayal of a difficult role will have you laughing , in shock and awe, before you are reaching for the tissues. A strong performance from a young talent to watch.
The experienced Jeanette Cronin is a delight as Deb. I’m still smiling as I think of her now. Deb is all heart, the caring Mum of the group, who can swear like a truckie. She has values that she gently passes on to Steve. She listens and notices. Jeanette’s comedic timing was perfection and helped to ease many a tense moment. She obviously relishes this lynchpin role and the chemistry between she and Steve was a delight.
Chris Baz is all business, a former real estate agent now running the show. He is the perfect foil to Deb. He also manages to play several different roles without missing a beat. I loved him best as gruff son, Terry.
Sophie Cox is Steve’s teacher fiancée, Claire. She has a tough job as well, working at an all boys school, whilst trying to plan a wedding. As Steve’s on call job begins to take its toll her usually sunny nature takes a battering and you wonder how this young couple’s relationship will survive. Planning a wedding is already stressful enough. Sophie’s role adds another layer to the story and shows off some excellent ballroom dancing skills.
Miyuki Lotz as Lucy, Jess and ensemble roles shines. With her distinctive high cheekbones she brought a light touch to even the most difficult of characters. She also showed her sense of fun. A great addition to an already talented cast.
Ellie is a shared role between Aara Afraz and Cleo Davis. Aara played the role on Opening Night to many ‘ awww’s ‘ from the audience every time she spoke. She and Steve interacted with an innocence and sense of wonder that created an intimate atmosphere.
Deputy Stage Manager, Yanni Dubler, generated plenty of laughs when he playfully entered the scenes. A lovely touch from this Payne Road alumnus. Yes, it’s my story and I can always plug my favourite little school, where my children were educated and I was a favourite relief teacher! Bravo, Yanni!
As always Renee Mulder did a brilliant job of using a revolving set , curtains and props to great effect further enhancing the story. The lighting design from Ben Hughes helped with mood and guided us through the play and Julian Starr created sound. You will laugh at some of the funeral songs chosen. My own choice is ABBA’s Dancing Queen. Boys, I hope you are taking note.
This play is one of the best debuts I’ve seen for many years. It’s relevant to our world today and takes us on a journey that celebrates finding your place in the world, the power of redemption and humility in the face of big questions. It’s a refreshing, honest and surprisingly uplifting invitation to start the conversations we all try to avoid. Thank you to Steven Pirie for sharing your unique perspective on this mysterious world. You gave the story humanity and life and thoroughly deserved the several standing ovations received on Opening Night.
Return to the Dirt is playing now at Bille Brown Theatre and is just one of those plays that is accessible to all. It can be heavy in parts, but is laced with humour and an underlying sense of dignity, respect and love. I also learnt so much about an industry that is shrouded in secrecy. This undeniably Queensland work with references to pop culture and our community, which shares the story of a young man’s coming of age, will surely become an Australian classic.
My husband and I both loved it. It’s playing until November 6 at our beloved Bille Brown Theatre. Just go see it and tell all your friends, as homegrown talent this good should be treasured. Another little gem from my friends at Queensland Theatre to round out the year.
Freelance writer, wife and mother of three sons, occasional supply teacher and aspiring romance author, Michelle Beesley can be most often found in a coffee shop chatting with friends or beside a rugby field cheering on her favourite teams.
Michelle is a prolific—albeit reluctant—traveller, keen walker, bookworm and yoga enthusiast who loves anything pink or sparkly (including champagne!).