Home Death by Nell Dunn

Charles Cowling



Posted by Pippa Wilcox


I wish I could tell you that the real-life stories portrayed in Nell Dunn’s play Home Death are over-dramatised.  But they aren’t.  

It seems to be a terrifyingly random lottery out there in terms of whether or not you will stumble across the sort of care package which will result in a ‘good’ death at home – which is the aim of each of the characters we are introduced to in this beautiful, moving, unflinchingly honest 90-minute piece.  

Such a thing as a good death does exist and when someone dies, if they and the people who love them believe it to be as positive an experience as is possible in the circumstances, the difference it makes is profound.

A ‘bad’ death leaves a gnawing, corrosive legacy for those left behind.  A good death results in a sense of pride and — amongst the complexities of grief — a thankful absence of guilt, remorse and torment about the decisions made in the approach to those final breaths.

I know this from speaking with the 200 or so families I’ve worked with in my role as a humanist funeral celebrant.  I’m inspired by hearing about those endings which we would all wish for ourselves and the people we love; and I’m haunted by the ones you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

In Home Death we hear of 7 deaths following cancer and we are spared no detail, no matter how uncomfortable.  We learn of the sense of loneliness and abandonment experienced by the friends and family of the dying; of the steel that appears to have replaced the heart of a doctor attending a dying man; of the desperately chaotic, disorganised and interminable scrabbling around for morphine; of the blood-spattered hospital ward; of the women who might be sent to sit with you in the night and whose only contribution to your well-being is to silently dispense medication and note in a book that they have done so; of the ridiculous insistence that you cannot die in your own home without a “horrible, scary, cold hospital bed.”

We learn that to organise a good death at home for someone we love often requires near-superhuman levels of determination, tenacity, time, energy, courage and an ability to rage against the machine.  And it would seem that above all else, access at the right time to morphine and anti-nausea medication is fundamental and all too often absent.  The NHS does not come off well in this piece.

Nell Dunn, now in her 70’s and renowned for giving a voice to ‘ordinary’ people in her work has assembled this play from her and her lover’s own experience and the experiences of others who had cared for a dying loved one at home. These true stories are told with commitment and integrity by the 11 strong acting ensemble.  There isn’t a weak link amongst them.  The production and performances are pared down, stripped back and utterly convincing.  

It is not wall-to-wall bleakness.  Although it is not so much the more positive stories that you leave the theatre dwelling on, there are some good deaths here as well as some air and light breathed into this piece.  The George and Diana Melly pairing and the trio of Mick, Lisa and Mary in particular provide some welcome laughter and the exchange between Juliet and James lets us off the hook for a while – the other five stories are told directly to the audience.

The Finborough seats might not be the most comfortable but this is one of those venues that makes me feel proud to be a Londoner.  The shamelessly intimate space, the courageous programming choices, the exceptional performing talent which it attracts, the hip and truly sweet theatre and bar staff, the very respectable loos, the (new) air-conditioning, the Firezza pizza which you can have waiting for you when the show’s over and the brilliant array of wines you can order by the glass… what’s not to like?

If you are a stakeholder in palliative care you must see this; if you believe that forewarned is forearmed you must see this. It’s hard to imagine a more effective means of highlighting the issues we all need to be aware of if we, or someone we love, would like to die well at home.


Home Death is currently playing at the Finborough Theatre for only 6 performances over 3 weeks.  Further performances may be added: http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2011/production-home-death.php


Pippa Wilcox is a humanist celebrant who conducts funerals and memorial services for those who have chosen to live without religion:  http://www.humanistcelebrant.com

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10 years ago

Wish I still lived in London, sounds great and what a brilliant way to highlight some really important issues and as important real choices.