Thursday, May 2, 2019

Review: 'Neck or Nothing' at The Pleasance, 1st May 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Who would have thought a play about an eccentric inventor constructing a bear-proof suit would be so depressing? Fledgling Theatre's Neck or Nothing (co-written and directed by Christopher Neels and Callum Cameron) is loosely based on the life of Canadian inventor Troy Hurtubise, most famous for his appearance in Peter Lynch's 1996 documentary Project Grizzly. That film followed Hurtubise as he constructed his "Ursus Mark VI", an impregnable suit of armour that would allow him to research wild bears up close without them being able to harm him.

Neck or Nothing transplants this story to England, where Hurtubise analogue Jens (James Murfitt) lives in a village with his wife Martha (Katy Daghorn) and brother Frank (David North). Martha and Frank believe in Jens' talent and support his inventing, sure that one day all his tinkering will pay off. The play commences with the family finances becoming strained, with Frank informing Jens that if he's going to make it big now is the time.

And so, with a declaration that he works best under pressure, Jens launches into a project to make an invulnerable bear-proof suit of armour. Sure, it's pointed out that there are no wild bears in England, but who can really say for sure? Meanwhile, he continues to bleed money, with the pressure beginning to stack up on his wife and brother.

It's a curious tale of ambition, talent and delusion - a man obsessed with a task that everyone around him can see is completely pointless. But who wants to be the person to step on someone's dreams? 

Neck or Nothing quickly defies expectations that it's going to be a screwball tale about a mad inventor. Instead, we get a fairly complex take on modern masculinity. Throughout the play there's an impressive digital video display by Rachel Sampley that edits together footage from 80s action films, with clips from RoboCop and The Terminator mirroring Jens' desire to become an invincible metal man. We also repeatedly see footage from Rocky from the iconic training sequence of his run through Philadelphia, which demonstrates how Jens wants to be thought of by his small community.

Bubbling underneath all this is that growing realisation that something very bad happened to Jens as a child. He claims to have been menaced by a bear in the woods as a child, but as there are no bears in the UK it seems depressingly logical that something extremely traumatising happened to him at a young age that he cannot process. As the play points out: you can build a suit that renders you impervious to physical harm, but there's no armour that stops existential dread getting in.

Jens' (and by extension Troy Hurtubise's) story makes for an interesting lens to view masculinity through: men who believe they can engineer their way out of their psychological problems rather than confront them. It's notable that the play is supporting men's mental health charity CALMzone, which if nothing else it demonstrates their sincerity. 

But the core story of Jens trying and failing to work through his trauma is so effective that when the focus shifts to the other characters the play suffers. Katy Daghorn is very good as Martha, showing off her talents in an excellent job interview scene that nicely summarises that sinking feeling when you realise you've set your expectations too high. But as good as this scene is, it and her story don't add a huge amount to the play. Cutting a scene as well written performed as the job interview would be a tough call, but the play suffers when the subject of the scene isn't Jens and his invention.

Similarly, there are moments where the comedy and sincerity don't gel together as well as they should. I've got no problem with a bit of tonal whiplash, but occasionally thoughtful moments are punctured by a joke that doesn't quite land (and vice versa).

But Neck or Nothing is a nicely turned out and engaging show. Special credit must go to Sophia Pardon's bear-proof suit of armour, which has a wonderful silhouette and a neat Blue-Peterish design aesthetic. Perhaps it could stand to be trimmed down to a neat festival-pleasing hour rather than the 85-90 minutes it currently runs at, but what's here is good stuff.

Neck or Nothing is at The Pleasance until 4th May. Tickets here.

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