Neck or Nothing – Pleasance Theatre, London

Writers and Directors: Christopher Neels and Callum Cameron

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

The 1996 documentary Project Grizzly told the efforts of Canadian Troy Hurtubise and his team to build a $150,000 suit of armour that would withstand the attack of a grizzly bear, so that he could observe them up close in the wild.

That the documentary didn’t take Hurtubise’s efforts entirely seriously is the jumping-off point for Fledgling Theatre Company’s surreal, fictionalised reimagining, Neck or Nothing. Writers and co-directors Christopher Neels and Callum Cameron reframe the story from the perspective of Jens, a freewheeling inventor whose support from his brother and girlfriend can only reach so far.

James Murfitt’s Jens is a charismatic fellow, with an opening monologue that would not feel out of place on the stand-up circuit. Rachel Sampley’s video projections, grabbing clips from 1980s testosterone-fuelled action fantasies from The Terminator to RoboCop, give further clues to the inspiration behind Jens’s armour design.

In support, Katy Daghorn’s Martha is a stabilising influence over the demons in Jens’s head, persuading him to resume his cognitive therapies when his mind starts running away from him. But while both she and David North as Jens’s more practical-minded brother Frank help keep the tone light, they are also the route by which the play shows the effect that one person’s poor mental health can have on those around them.

As both Frank and Martha come to realise that their support of Jens has held them back from achieving their own dreams, the play comes close to blaming Jen’s mental illness for their disappointments, mirroring the temptations of those closest to him. Yet just as the characters do not take that ultimate step, nor does Neck or Nothing, instead acknowledging that having mental illness at the heart of a family’s problems does not make it the sole cause, nor a point of blame.

There is something uneasy, though, about a man’s declining mental health being the focal point for a comedy. Neck or Nothing manages that balancing act, but only just.

Continues until May 4 2019 | Image: Veronika Casarova

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Surreal mental health comedy

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