Being one of the small percentage of the population who has never read a Terry Pratchett book, I really had no idea what to expect when I attended the opening night of Mort, the second production in Erith Playhouse’s current season. There was already a bit of a buzz around the show and producer Terri McCann (in her directorial debut at the Playhouse) had presented the project with such enthusiasm at the Season Launch, that I had a feeling I was in for a bit of a treat.
Published in 1987, Mort is the fourth novel in Pratchett’s much-loved Discworld series and is the first to focus on the character Death, who only appeared as a side character in the previous novels. It was apparent immediately on stepping into the theatre foyer that the production had attracted something of a new audience, with several Pratchett enthusiasts clearly in attendance.
Apparently as a teenager, Mort had a personality that made him unsuited to the family farming business and the story opens with his father, Lezek, taking him to a local hiring fair in the hope that he will obtain some kind of apprenticeship. Mort, at first, has no luck attracting the interest of an employer. Then, just before the stroke of midnight, a man concealed in a long black cloak arrives on a white horse. He says he is looking for a young man to assist him in his work and, to his father’s delight, selects Mort for the job. The man turns out to be none other than Death, and gives Mort an apprenticeship in “ushering souls into the next world.”
When it is a princess’s time to pass on (according to a complex preconceived reality) Mort, instead of ushering her soul effectively, actually saves her from death, dramatically altering a part of Discworld’s reality and pushing the princess into what seems to be a some kind of shady halfway-house. The princess does not have long to live, and Mort must try save her, once again, from a seemingly inevitable death.
As Mort continues run Death’s errands, he begins to lose some of his former character, almost starting to morph into Death himself. Death, in turn, yearns to find out what being human is like and travels to Ankh-Morpork to indulge in new experiences and attempt to feel mortal emotion. In the end, Mort must fight Death not only for his freedom, but his daughter’s hand.
Martin Gilby gives a superb performance as Death, taking the character literally in his stride as he glides about the stage, white-faced and sunken-eyed on stilts, swathed in a black cloak, his voice amplified with an eerie, booming effect. He is an absolute sight and sound to behold and his creation is clearly not only a product of the director’s vision and his own spot-on interpretation, but a brilliant team effort by Wardrobe (Elizabeth Foster), Props (Sue Newman), Sound (Steve Nash) and Lights (Simon Dinsmore, Adam Davis and Hazel Watts). Mark Fromings as Mort is equally triumphant, bringing the character to life and delighting the audience from the off with his ginger wig and the affable, easy demeanour he brings to all of his roles to make acting look far too easy. Someone remarked it was as though he had stepped straight from the pages of the book. Rebecca Liquorish as Death’s daughter, Yasabell, who also becomes Mort’s unlikely love interest, also puts in a strong performance as do Roger Butler as Albert, Kate Richardson as Princess Keli and Anthony Denford as Cutwell. They are supported by an excellent ensemble, who not only play five or six roles each but, along with a hard-working backstage crew, act as “scene-setters”, manoeuvring flats to effect a whopping twenty-five seamless changes. Special mention must go to Suzanne Whitnall’s spectacular interactive door knocker and Jane Ghost-Cavanagh’s insalubrious lady of the night who takes Death’s experience of mortal life to another level.
Terri McCann’s staging is simple, yet effective, interspersed with special light, sound and multimedia effects to create a version of Discworld that visibly delighted the audience. I must say, as a Pratchett novice, I found the story a little difficult to follow at times, but this did not detract from my enjoyment. A debut directorial creation to be very proud of indeed.