The Great Almighty Gill review – a thoughtful, funny farewell

I write as someone who got a laugh with a Bob Monkhouse joke at his mother’s funeral, so I get where Daniel Hoffmann-Gill is coming from when he says he wants to share the eulogy he wrote for his father. David Gill died of dementia-related complications seven years ago and, as his son tells it, the funeral was sparsely attended. He thinks his big speech deserves a bigger audience, not only because it was a well-constructed tribute to a lovable rogue but also because, sentimentally, he would like to keep the name of his father alive.

So with lectern, flowers and snugly fitting suit, he invites us to relive the sad day, casting audience members as key figures in the congregation, from ex-girlfriend to funeral director. It sounds morose, but Hoffmann-Gill has the matter-of-fact charm of a standup comedian, admits his old man was a “prat” and makes light of the shoogly nature of it all. In the first half of the show, his delivery has something of the downbeat lyricism of Daniel Kitson in its combination of honest affection and funny observational detail.

Hoffmann-Gill has the matter-of-fact charm of a standup comedian

But a eulogy can last only so long. First, Hoffmann-Gill runs us through the highlights of his speech, with its summary of a life of ducking, diving and sidestepping the taxman. Then he breaks off to play songs by Elton John (mum’s choice) and Elvis Presley (dad’s). After that, he shifts tone.

In Angharad Jones’s production, her first for New Perspectives since becoming artistic director last year, the actor retells his father’s life story in more detail, this time in the manner of a club comedian, playing it not for laughs but with a brash delivery and blunt honesty. It is an odd tangent that makes sense only when Hoffmann-Gill switches tone again. The biographical material, we realise, is to illustrate what was lost as his father became beset by dementia.

But although he plays the disoriented man sensitively, the evolution of The Great Almighty Gill from the universal experience of a funeral to the particular description of one man’s illness takes us from public celebration to private act of mourning, a sweet but inward-looking gesture.

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