Fledgling Theatre come to The Pleasance as part of the You Will Know Their Names season, giving up-and-coming writers Christopher Neels and Callum Cameron the opportunity to stage Neck or Nothing, which they have also co-directed, before it transfers to the Greenwich Theatre.
The play has been inspired by the 90’s documentary Project Grizzly, which followed Canadian inventor Troy Hurtubise as he tracked down grizzly bears in a suit of armour of his own invention. While Neck or Nothing is not an adaptation of this work, there are some very loving nods to the film peppered throughout the play.
The title refers to the pursuit of success, even if it comes at great risk, something that the character of Jens doesn’t necessarily appreciate fully. There’s a trauma in his past, perhaps real or perhaps not, but his childhood encounter with a bear; and the subsequent nicknaming “bear boy” has left him with a desire to protect himself. Jens is an inventor, living and working in his brother’s (superbly played by David North) garage with partner, Martha. The whole family has money troubles, and Martha too aspires to be more successful in her chosen career, yet they are all consumed by the construction of a suit to protect against bear attacks.
Sophia Pardon’s set consists of the workshop, on a chipboard wall hangs a mixture of tools and junk, with a workbench serving as the only other piece of scenery. That back wall though, becomes a canvas for some seriously impressive video design from Rachel Sampley, creating more depth and context to the unfolding narrative.
James Murfitt gives a particularly strong performance as Jens, especially in the short monologues which prefix each ‘chapter’, all of the cast take on additional roles, and Murfitt’s Diane is a wonderful addition. Katy Daghorn’s Martha feels like the most multi-dimensional character, most evident in Daghorn’s interview scene, with an interpretation of the situation that we can probably all relate to.
Neck or Nothing is a surrealist comedy, and it does excel in this area. The jokes are all exceptionally funny and not too outlandish, meaning they can appeal to a wider comedy loving audience, while the cast display a good degree of comic timing which helps each joke land. This hilarity though may come at a price, as the central theme of mental health becomes ever more diluted, the Jens character too easily becomes a figure of fun, and while the impact of his mental issues on those around him feature heavily, these too become punchlines of a joke.
Neck or Nothing is an extremely funny and entertaining play, but with a serious message which doesn’t quite manage to break through the comedic surface. This play may start a conversation around mental health in men, but we will have to hope that the emphasis on comedy hasn’t risked the overall success of its main intention.