Dead Man’s Cell Phone

Dead Mans Cell Phone State Theatre 2023State Theatre Company South Australia with Caitlin Ellen Moore and Tim Overton. Slingsby’s Hall of Possibility. 29 Nov 2023


Director Tim Overton says Sarah Ruhl’s play, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, is about connection, but there is a behemothly blaring disconnection to start the whole thing off. Dead Man’s Cell Phone is an early career hit for the American playwright in 2007, and still somehow her nominations for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (twice) and a Tony Award for best play have not brought her the gong, and judging by this little gem, that’s a shame.


Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Thought I’d just say it again because it has a great ring to it. We are all now familiar with the possibility of a grotesque afterlife on social media. Back in 2007, though, Sarah was musing about disembodied voices on mobile devices that are sourced from anywhere, or maybe nowhere - different to the known location of a stationary voice at the end of a hard-wired telephone.


It would lessen your experience of this remarkable production by giving too much away except, yes, literally, it has a lot to do with a dead man’s cell phone. The elements of discovery and surprise, the transposition of time and place, and the mix of the seemingly normal and something besides that are in the script have been amplified by terrifically disconcerting performances. As well as theatrical movement directed by Overton and choreographer Zoë Dunwoodie, stark lighting by Vanessa van de Weyer, Wendy Todd’s ever-shifting set, and composer Dave McEvoy’s live music and sound effects integrated into the performance – all this provides the surrealism and bizarre surprises found in a David Lynch film.


James Smith’s virtuosity stunned me in Theatre Republic’s How Not To Make It In America in 2021, and that consummate capacity is again on display here. His masterful movement and voice versatility are fun and awesome. He is the dead man and his bro. Bravo! Annabel Matheson as Jean grips our hand as she takes us along on her surreal sojourn. From the time she answers the dead man’s phone, her naïve duplicity leads us down the rabbit hole into the Alice’s Wonderland-like unreality of the dead man’s life. It’s difficult for us to shake away Shabana Azeez’s exotic character when she’s supposed to be a disappointed and rather ordinary housewife; it is the former where she is supremely successful. Continuing the Alice in Wonderland metaphor, stalwart performer Carmel Johnson is The Queen but doesn’t reach the required authenticity.


In the end, white lies can make a difference and a peripatetic love story conquers all. Dead Man’s Cell Phone (I love this title) is a lively evening of munificent magic and discombobulating delectation. Bravo!


David Grybowski


When: 29 Nov to 10 Dec

Where: Slingsby’s Hall of Possibility