We sat down with Ell Potter and Mary Higgins, the minds behind 'The Last Show Before We Die', one of Euronews Culture's top picks of this year's Edinburgh Fringe.
Everything comes to an end. Why are we so terrible at dealing with endings then?
That’s the question at the heart of Ell Potter and Mary Higgins’ ground-breaking new show ‘The Last Show Before We Die’, currently running at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Potter and Higgins sing, dance, clown and writhe their way through a show that interrogates all kinds of endings via audio clips of interviews they’ve conducted. Of their many interviews, they’ve spoken to a palliative carer, a barber who’s estranged from his children and Higgins’ grandfather mere weeks before his death. But the show isn’t just a meditation on endings for people in general, it’s also a dissection of their own ending. After this show, Potter and Higgins don’t want to work together again.
Potter and Higgins first met at university in 2016. Together they started to create their first play ‘Hotter’, a study of modern femininity for which they interviewed women of all ages. During the show’s development, they entered into a romantic relationship. Then they broke up before the show was finished.
The end result was a brilliant piece of work that combined their interviews, their theatrical acumen, and deep autobiographical catharsis. It was a success and they followed up ‘Hotter’ with ‘Fitter’, interviewing men this time. That was 2019.
Their friendship and artistic companionship had survived a romantic break-up, but the pandemic changed things.
“We had a big argument over Zoom,” Higgins recalls. They started using a writing exercise of starting a sentence with “I fear” to explain their feelings to each other.
“We felt like there wasn’t a future for us creatively,” Potter says. To them ‘Hotter’ and ‘Fitter’ felt like it had happened too long ago and now their careers had stagnated. “I fear we’ve been abandoned. I fear we will never make work again. I fear this is the end of our relationship. That we’ll have no money, that the show won’t be good and everyone will hate it,” Potter quotes.
Something clicked. After years of wondering how to translate their talents into careers, they just thought “fuck it”. “We’re just going to make something purely for us. It’s going to be really weird and we’re not going to explain it,” Higgins says.
With the help of director Sammy Glover, the pair set to work devising this bold new show.
Using their previous method of interviews — this time on the theme of endings — and combined with hilarious and poignant set pieces, from resurrection to touching farewell letters, it’s a devastating show quite unlike anything you’ve seen before.
What brings the whole thing to life is their performing skill. In a pivotal moment, where the voice of Higgins’ late grandfather plays over their mocking impersonation of a crow, Potter calls them out for the crassness of the image. Potter’s take is scripted but feels like a fresh uncomfort with the scene in that very moment. Their frequent fourth wall breaks don’t feel like knowing winks to an audience. Instead, it’s all part of an intricate tapestry to communicate their emotions earnestly. When the show reaches the climatic break-up, the tears are real.
To reach this level of vulnerability on stage, Glover encouraged them to improvise in front of live audiences, then implement the best moments into the script. When I see the show at the Fringe’s midpoint, it’s slick without sacrificing the emotion. That’s down to their source material being the real conversations they’ve had, Potter says.
“It's a really interesting thing to go through. To try and find the truth of it every night.”
The line between acting and honest emotion has blurred for them. “Some nights, you really do hit it. Last night, we really hit it. And then other nights, you're like, ‘I'm doing a really good job at pretending’,” she says.
Although this show feels more vulnerable than anything they’ve ever done before, it’s actually the most comfortable the pair have ever felt on stage.
“It must feel very vulnerable for an audience member, because you're seeing two people going through it,” Potter says. “But we have way more boundaries as makers now. I'm not going to go out and divulge a terrible secret because I need to absolve myself from it. Which is what I used to think autobiographical theatre had to be.”
Despite that, it is an incredibly personal journey that they bring audiences in for. One of the most impactful moments comes when Higgins finally does listen to their grandfather’s interview. His candid questioning of when his mortality became “a reality, instead of just a notional concept” and Higgins’ wish to read the book he had planned on writing will hit home for anyone acquainted with loss.
Their purview includes all of life’s endings though. From losing a grandparent to finishing a TV show, the show recognises the significance of it all. People have come up to them during the run to tell them all their own stories and how they’ve dealt with endings.
Potter and Higgins don’t have the answers on how to avoid endings. Their play though has provided insight into how to deal with them better. Higgins considers how it’s often in the final conversations of a romantic relationship that couples truly talk about their feelings.
“We save that conversation for when it’s too late,” they say. “Weirdly, you often feel closest to that person when you’re talking about the end of the relationship,” Potter adds.
Talking about endings helps us face them better. Even if nothing can make us truly ready. The act of creating this play has certainly helped Potter and Higgins face the end of their relationship. After this show, they’re both excited to start working on new projects, whether it’s novel writing, stand-up, or pole dancing. It’s going to be separate though.
Is this truly the end for their artistic partnership though? As they talk through the process, they exude joy. “We don’t know if it’ll actually be the last show before we die,” Higgins says. “I think our agent hopes it isn’t,” Potter jokes.
“My guess is, in however many number of years, we’ll be hanging out having some wine and then we’ll just have some dumb idea,” Higgins says. “I don’t doubt that will happen again, but I also know that there will be real freedom in working on stuff apart.”