THE BLOG
08/06/2015 16:52 BST | Updated 07/06/2016 06:59 BST

'Buckets' at the Orange Tree Theatre

Robert Day

I got in after watching Buckets at the Orange Tree Theatre and said to my housemates, "I've just been watching a play about death."

I'm always coming in and saying things like this and they always look at me quite strangely.

But I said, "Oh no, don't worry about it, it was quite nice really." (They weren't particularly worried. But I like to reassure them.)

It's a bit of a problem though - how nice it all is. Adam Barnard's play Buckets, a series of scenes mediating on death, life, happiness, hopes and dreams, often feels like a chocolate selection box full of tweeness, and that's without even mentioning the set compromised of flowers, balloons, and a kid's slide.

Don't get me wrong, some of Barnard's writing is absolutely stunning. There's a speech of controlled anger and heartbroken disappointment as a mother tells the child she has lost how she resents the fact she will never catch her drinking under age, pretending not to smoke, or staying out all night - "this is what I wanted. This is what my friends have," she says. And a scene in which a terminally ill teenager is granted the opportunity to meet a dizzyingly famous boyband heartthrob is both funny and awfully sad, as she realizes that the very fact he is there is like getting a very good-looking carrier pigeon float in through your window and say "your death is extremely imminent".

Buckets' themes are pretty much as big as it gets - life and death - but it offers a number of intelligent insights, articulating things that you feel but can't quite voice: how worrying about how to meaningfully fill up your time on earth can sometimes be a poor substitute for actually just living it. How devastating it can feel to think that someone you think the world of might in fact be indifferent to your existence. And that if there are twenty thousand individual moments in a day, of course you are going to spend a lot of them doing pointless things like updating your Facebook status - a passive, pointless act that in fact now marks your time on earth. But, actually, it's not jumping out of a plane or meeting pop stars that you'll want to remember, perhaps - there is some glory and beauty in the humdrum.

The play spends most of its time with people who have either been told they are going to die, want to, or are spending a lot of time thinking about it. But there is no way to deal with it, Barnard suggests - you can't really prepare for it, and if you try, you'll probably fail. But the play never touches on people who are there one moment and gone the next, with no time to think about what's coming, no chance to leave a message behind for the people they love. Is this albeit cruel and random ending of life actually better, at least in terms of deflecting an existential crisis?

But despite some glorious writing and a pretty flawless cast, the structure of the play - a series of interconnected scenes - sets it up for failure. It ends up cutting short the best moments, and cluttering it with moments that don't quite work or fit. And where this set-up worked in a play like Caryl Churchill's Love and Information, with the form informing the play's content, here it just feels too much like poking your nose into a writer's notebook.

And of course there's the niceness. Niceness isn't a problem - death is a strange intermingling of absolute sorrow, shattered disbelief, joy and celebration in what a person and life can be, and bitter anger, amongst everything else. You can laugh about it and you can cry about it. But Buckets needs moments that make you elated at life's possibilities or make you haemorrhage tears at how random and weird and horrible death is. It offers pleasantness; that's fine, but somehow it just feels as though it doesn't quite match the occasion.