Neck or Nothing at Pleasance Theatre
Neck or Nothing: an attempt at success that risks losing everything. Fledgling Theatre Company’s new play follows Jens, a troubled inventor (played by James Murfitt). Scarred by a traumatic incident in his past, he now lives in his brother’s garage with his long-term partner, Martha. Inventing is in Jens’s blood. His father was an inventor who once built a Vauxhall Astra from scratch. His whole life, Jens has aspired to ascend to heroism – he just hasn’t known how, exactly, until now.
Neck or Nothing builds off the cult-classic documentary Project Grizzly. In his youth, Jens got lost in the forest outside his small English town, where a run-in with a bear would earn him the nickname “bear boy” for life. But did this really happen, or was it just a young boy’s powerful imagination? Real or not, this traumatic event instils the fear that determines the protagonist’s life from thereon.
Murfitt plays a realistically flawed Jens, capable of scathing sarcastic retorts. Humour abounds, yet it’s the young man’s interactions with loved ones Martha (Katy Daghorn) and Frank, his brother (David North), that lend the play true heart. We see two sympathetic characters, well fleshed out and skilfully embodied on stage, who truly care about Jens’s well-being, who try to understand his dream and help him live it, often to their detriment; for along the way they make sacrifices, and we pray for Jens to wake up to the realisation that his inability to deal with issues is hurting not just him, but the people he loves and needs most. It’s through such effective characterisation that co-writers and directors Christopher Neels and Callum Cameron’s play achieves success without overbearing the audience. The thematic study of masculinity and mental health is nested subtly within believable, compelling and very funny characters.
Set and costume designer Sophia Pardon has created an epic astronaut-like bear fighting suit, while video and lighting designer Rachel Sampley provides a shifting backdrop – glimpses of 80s and 90s action films (think RoboCop and Terminator). This visual imagery informs viewers of Jens’s inspiration, the hyper-masculine fictional heroes of the past.
All too often, theatre that seeks to represent a social cause can lose sight of narrative values, too caught up in a sense of self-importance. But Neck or Nothing doesn’t suffer these writing shortcomings. The play’s layered, nuanced portrayal of mental health grants it merit from a critical perspective. And so, if its creators have indeed risked it all recklessly for success, they should now stand proud.
Photo: Veronika Casarova
Neck or Nothing is at Pleasance Theatre from 24th April until 4th May 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.