Wednesday, August 12, 2015

'My World Has Exploded A Little Bit' at Tristan Bates Theatre, 11th August 2015

Last night I looked a woman in the eyes and told her she was going to die. She looked right back at me and told me the same. It was disconcerting: you compartmentalise mortality and death deep down inside - sure, at that at some day you're going to die, but dwelling on it isn't particularly healthy. But My World Has Exploded A Little Bit thumps death down on an autopsy table and spills its guts, picking through bereavement, loss and grief.

The tone varies from sentimental miserablism to blunt honesty with stop offs on the way at anger and joy. This is the brainchild of Bella Heesom, who previously impressed in last September's The Woman in the Moon. Beginning as a practical guide to bereavement, she gradually switches gears and ends up at painful self-appraisal. Throughout she's assisted by Esh Alladi, who plays a piano accompaniment and provides comic relief.

The underlying narrative chronicles two deaths. The first is a daughter struggling to cope with her father's fatal illness. Having been diagnosed with an aggressively malignant brain tumour things are gradually winding down, and the daughter explains the stages by which you cope with care, planning and emotional reinforcement. Next up her mother dies, and we repeat the stages, now shot through with a faint anger and guilt.

First impressions are worrying. The prose used to describe the daughter's reactions is syrupy and laden with clunking similes. This, in combination with a manipulative 'okay, cry now' piano score left me primed for a sickly dose of grief porn. Fortunately, the show quickly demonstrates a nimble self-awareness that allows the tone to vary wildly while maintaining a narrative and thematic throughline. Contrasting emotions clash up against one another: moments of deeply felt misery pricked by a comic flourish or upbeat bit of narration. 

This gives My World Has Exploded A Little Bit a powerful core, especially as we quickly realise that the 'case studies' we're exploring are obviously derived from Heesom's own experience. Ordinarily I'm deeply suspicious of performers using their shows as a form of therapy. This brand of drama tends towards the narcissistic, treating the audience as distractions along for the ride on someone's personal growth. But though the show is obviously therapeutic for Heesom, it's also a worthwhile piece of drama in its own right.

This is almost entirely down to Heesom's performance - it hits like a freight train. To devise a piece of theatre around your parent's deaths is either bold or foolish - transforming moments of intense pain into something to entertain a bunch of anonymous strangers. But Heesom gradually peels back all the layers of artifice, arriving at a white hot ball of confusion, anger and self-loathing, which explodes in a climax that's spinetingling in its raw honesty.

That said, there's a few flies in the ointment. Esh Alladi grates as the comic relief, his performance a man-childish set of ingratiating grins and clownish waves. I get that for this to work you've got to have a little sugar mixed in with the salt, but his mugging quickly becomes an annoying distraction. He's not exactly helped by the task of tunelessly thumping a keyboard to mark scene changes. I don't know if it's a volume issue, or something to do with the mixing desk, but the sound ran through me like nails down a blackboard. 

This aside, My World Has Exploded A Little Bit is an undeniably powerful piece of theatre. Death is an incredibly weightier subjects to tackle, but Heesom approaches it with a perceptive, clear-eyed intelligence. All around me audience members were sniffling and dabbing their eyes - their reaction not caused by sentimental manipulation, but by hard-earned, keenly felt pathos. 

Not exactly a cheery night out, but nonetheless an extremely rewarding one.


My World Has Exploded A Little Bit is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 15 August. Tickets here.

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