The latest play from the minds of Fledgling Theatre Company’s Callum Cameron and Christopher Neels is Neck or Nothing – an 85-minute affair that takes the cult documentary Project Grizzly as its main inspiration, seeking to explore mental health issues in men. It first ran at the Pleasance and then at Greenwich Theatre’s studio space, supported by CALMzone.
As a child, Jens believed he had a near death experience with a bear in the local woods and it has consumed him ever since. Taunts of “bear boy” followed him in his school days (the cruel nickname is still remembered by one of his former schoolmates), and as an adult Jens finds it hard to function out in the world; unwilling to go back to an office job, he spends his time in his workshop (in actual fact the garage of the house he and his brother Frank inherited from their father) searching for the invention that will make his name and maybe quell his fears. His wife Martha is incredibly understanding, but starts to wish for a life of her own when she’s offered an interview for her dream job, and Jens becomes increasingly obsessive about his new invention: the Icarus suit. But how far will Jens go to prove that he was right all along?
The statistics for men’s mental health make for rather grim reading: suicide is the most common cause of death in men aged 20-49 (in England & Wales), and men are less likely to access some kind of psychological therapy than women. That’s why there has been a spate of new pieces of writing relating to the subject over recent months, with the common thread being encouragement to talk; it may seem best or easiest to bottle things up, or channel all of your energy & feelings into a single interest, but this can do more harm than good. Martha recognises this in Jens, gently suggesting that he talk more, or focus on his counting exercises – instead, he ends up pushing away his support network in pursuit of the bear.
Initially you might not expect a surreal comedy to be the ideal vehicle for exploring a subject like this, however you’re quickly sucked into Jens’ bizarre world – intrigued by the bear and curious to see if he will find some kind of inner peace from his efforts. The sillier moments also act as a great contrast with the more serious aspects of the show, allowing you some moments of levity alongside an important message.
Sophia Pardon’s set design is both interesting and highly practical; what first appears to be Jens’ workshop, with a workbench & a wall full of tools, is seamlessly converted into the bakery where Martha works, as well as several other locations – plus Rachel Sampley’s video design allows clips to be played onto the back wall (such as Jens’ trek through the woods) and also a projection of Jens & Martha’s bed. It’s quite ambitious for a show of this size, but other than the odd technical glitch it manages to work rather well. The cast of three (James Murfitt, Katy Daghorn & David North) are a great unit, and manage to bring an air of believability to even the most surreal moments.
My verdict? A surreal comedy that shines a light on men’s mental health issues, as well as entertains – an ambitious but well done production.
Neck or Nothing ran at Greenwich Theatre Studio from 7-11 May 2019.