OneStopArts.com / Review / Writing: Journalism

…what? Heads Bodies Legs at Camden People’s Theatre (*)

A “Dadaist thriller” and “absurd comic thriller set in a sinister private hospital” was never going to be easy watching, but with so little sense around this piece and production, the result is a mish-mash of ideas and concepts that struggles to be more than just interesting. At the Camden People’s Theatre.

I have a theory: it’s fairly easy to hide behind the “surreal” moniker. By attaching it to your project, you can write off any criticisms as well as explain away any vicissitudes because, well, it’s not meant to make sense in the first place. But that’s too simplistic – good surreal work uses its very mutability to expose greater truths and understandings about the human condition, although that doesn’t change the fact that bad surreal work can fall back on the former if it can’t achieve the latter.

I’m not quite sure where Heads Bodies Legs falls on that scale. Having watched it, slept on it, thought about it, I have reached absolutely no conclusions. Nothing about it has made any lasting impression. The circuitous plot about Jon Price travelling through a surreal hospital to find his soul doesn’t seem to mean anything, nor do the people he meets nor what they tell him seem to have any impact. When the plot meanders over to another pair we met, the reason for this is also unclear. It all ends with a red stage and everyone, presumably, dying.

I simply don’t know what it all meant. I’m sure the project was started with the best of intentions, but the result simply has nothing to say. There’s a vague point that hospitals actually make you sicker, but that sounds more like the hysterical phobia of one of the writers than an actual starting point. The man looking for his soul seems to behave perfectly normally without it, and why the soul itself is dressed up like a sperm cell is just beyond me. Why do the doctors all behave so strangely? I’m not sure it matters – their odd behaviour feels less intentional and more meant to be funny, but it achieves neither.

The production has also got plenty of mod-cons, from a complicated set (that takes forever to change in semi-black-out far too often – directors, you need to find better ways to do this) to special animated projections (that, according to staff, didn’t work properly on the night I saw) – in any case, an effort has been made. The result is nothing special: Sally Stevens’ animations are scrawled and add little to the scenes where they’re used, and interact badly with the lights – this can be done brilliantly: see Chimerica, where the projections, when across faces, are washed out by side-light – not rocket science. Also, if you’re going to use loads of projections, the obvious place to use them is during the clunky scene changes – surely?

The acting, also, doesn’t add anything to the piece: Giles Coram clearly has some talent, but when all of your lines are “What?”, it’s hard to add much variance. Everyone else indulges far too heavily in the strange over-acting described above, which is just not that interesting nor engaging.

I simply don’t know what to make of this show. How it is the result of 2 years worth of collaboration is absolutely beyond me: it may be that, after 2 years, there’ve been too many creatives involved to create a singular vision, or that they’re all too close to see how impenetrable it’s become, but the result is just baffling; the audience around me was silent throughout, bar one lone person in the back row laughing uproarously.

This strikes me as the kind of project where going back to the drawing board may just make it even more confusing: probably best to ditch some angles and focus on story and character. You don’t need a million different effects and cool staging ideas if the ground you’re building on is unstable. If I gave two hoots about Jon Price’s journey, there’d be something to sink my teeth into: without that, it doesn’t make any sense or impact. Then again, maybe it wasn’t supposed to make sense in the first place.

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