Thanks in no small part to the seemingly never-ending glut of ‘reality’ talent shows that have pervaded our collective consciousness over the last decade or so, having suffered the loss of a loved one, often in tragic circumstances – possessing a ‘sob story’ as it’s known – has become somewhat de riguer, something to be worn almost as a badge of honour. Platitudes are offered up, many to the effect of ‘I can’t imagine what you’re going through’, but on the whole it’s generally accepted that everyone knows what it means to lose someone.
But do we? Do we really? As with most things in life, we don’t truly understand something until it has actually happened to us. Even then though, when that something is the death of a loved one, it seems to be widely accepted – within our society at least – that we don’t really talk about death. Not really talk about it. Despite the stone-cold fact that everyone who has ever lived has either died or will die, the topic of death remains almost perversely taboo.
My World Has Exploded a Little Bit, written and performed by the brilliant Bella Heesom, tackles the subject of death head on, offering a 17 step guide to dealing with the death of a loved one. The guide – titled ‘A Logical, Philosophical Guide to Managing Mortality’ – is structured around the real-life loss of Heesom’s father to an inoperable tumour, source material that yields surprisingly but genuinely funny results. Using the simple yet hugely effective device of a pair of glasses, the play switches between the 17 point lecture featuring song, interactivity and general merriment (glasses on) and tender, heart-rending reflections on the final days and eventual passing of Heesom’s father (glasses off).
Supporting Heesom throughout, providing comic effect during the lecture and pitch-perfect narration and musical accompaniment during the reflections, is the wonderfully talented Eva Alexander, the chemistry between the two performers working extremely well. This is very much Heesom’s play though and, as the 17 step guide is recycled to cover the subsequent (and yes, once again real-life) loss of her mother, everything that has gone before is deftly turned in on itself and this remarkable production reveals itself for what it really is – a powerful, necessary, quietly devastating conversation between Heesom and herself. The fact that Heesom has invited us in to witness that conversation is an opportunity that should most certainly be embraced.
There’s intimate, then there’s The Hope Theatre. With a capacity of just 50 seats, the audience at this small North London venue find themselves physically emerged in whichever narrative is unfolding before them. Such a setting works extremely well for In Other Words, the story of Arthur (played by Matthew Seager, who also wrote the play) and Jane (played by Celeste Dodwell) whose loving relationship is tested to breaking point by the onset of Arthur’s dementia. The play cleverly flits back and forth in time, from the couple’s first encounter and them later recounting that encounter, to the first signs and eventual effects of Arthur’s condition and the couple’s increasingly sombre visits to the doctor; ‘It feels like…I am breaking,’ Arthur declares during one such visit. The common thread throughout, and indeed the key theme of the play, is the central part music plays in each of these stages of Arthur and Jane’s life together, in particular Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me To The Moon which evolves from being a fond reminiscence into a powerful touchstone for the increasingly detached Arthur.
The small setting and sparse staging are employed to great effect, with credit to Will Alder and Iida Aino (lighting and sound designer respectively) for transporting the audience to different settings in the blink of an eye. A production such as this lives and dies by its performances though and thankfully both Seager and Dodwell are very good as the beleaguered couple. Given the arc of the narrative, it is Seager’s performance that stands out during the first half of the play, but a highly emotive monologue in which Dodwell’s character communicates the sheer frustration and heartache she is experiencing at seeing the corrosion of the man she loves certainly redresses that balance, the sense of bitterness and resentment at the injustice of the situation palpable throughout. Together, Seager and Dodwell do well to encapsulate the fact that there is little in life more complex or more defining than the relationship between two people.
Seager was initially inspired to create In Other Words following his involvement with sensory stimulation workshops during his final year at university, an experience which led to him becoming involved with a rather special charity. Based in Glasgow, Playlist for Life facilitate the use of music, in particular songs that hold significant personal meaning, in the treatment of dementia. With its strong performances, effective storytelling and clever staging, In Other Words serves as a fitting testament to such a worthy cause.