Before How I Met My Dead Husband starts, the audience is encouraged to bring drinks into the performance space, which throws us off in two ways. Firstly, as we walk in, chatting and sipping wine, we realise it’s set up for a funeral; there’s a closed casket, with flowers on top, and a man’s face smiling out of a photo frame. Secondly, the mature nature of the show — including recommendations to combine the performance with alcohol, the phrase “cabaret funeral” and a heavy content warning for “coarse language and mention of suicide and death” — creates an audience with zero children. This is a shame because it strikes me that How I Met My Dead Husband would be a fantastic show to bring kids to. There are certainly PG parts, but the sort that a 12-year-old would froth; the swear words are, without exception, punchlines, and the suicide scene doesn’t carry the emotional weight the warning implies.
This one-woman show (the name of which suggests a depressing sequel to How I Met Your Mother) begins when actor Lansy Feng emerges, wearing a dark qipao, and thanks us for coming to commemorate her husband’s life. She is Chuen-Jiau, a woman who remembers everything from her last four lives, the length of time it’s taken to secure true love.
As Feng weaves her love story across centuries and continents, she sings beautifully in a mix of Mandarin, French and English, accompanied by Simone Cremona, who’s sometimes hesitant on the keys but a delightfully stern Frenchwoman when the script calls on her. The story feels at once completely original and like a timeless fable. It pays homage to the heightened romance of Taiwanese drama, but it’s also more than a love story – Chuen-Jiau needs to learn to love herself before expecting a man to do the same.
The script is, at times, excellent. Reincarnated for the first time, Chuen-Jiau sings Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’: “A new dawn, a new day, a new life for me.” In between verses, she describes being born. “All these strangers are looking at me, smiling,” she says, warily returning the audience’s gaze. Only when she sings the chorus for the final time does she let it land: “And I’m feeling good.” It’s a perfect reinvention of the song as a musical number.
In one memorable exchange of wordplay, a French customer at Chuen-Jiau’s restaurant asks, “Quoi?”. Chuen-Jiau tells her boss, in front of whom she’s pretending she can speak French, that the customer is asking, in Mandarin, for “gua“ – a melon. An impressive bilingual pun! You rarely see it outside Nabokov (and inside Nabokov it’s too dark to read).
But in this production, the jokes are explained slowly and not all of the script is as tight as Feng’s clasp on the audience’s hand. There are slip-ups, such as when, in her second life, Chuen-Jiau meets “a weird homeless lady”. The weakest point is the final song, one of Feng’s originals, in which she sums up her show’s message with a trite meditation on love: “Love is so simple, but it’s also so much more” – a bad line made worse when she repeatedly attempts to force it to rhyme. Nevertheless, Dead Husband puts a new spin on life’s final destination and does so with humour and flair.
Wit Incorporated’s How I Met My Dead Husband is running at Bluestone Church Arts Space until Saturday September 7.