The premise of Neck or Nothing is undoubtedly odd; we follow a self-taught inventor named Jens who attempts to create a suit that will be able to fight bears, referred to as the ‘natural enemy’ of mankind. It is difficult to say then, why one feels so hooked by such a childish premise. The thing is, none of this play is really about the mechanics of stitching together bear-proof material—it is actually a study of men’s mental health issues. Even if it is something as peculiar as being the first to invent a bear-proof suit, an audience ends up asking themselves—why do so many men have a desire to pioneer some kind of legacy?
Lead by James Murfitt skilfully portraying the eccentric inventor, the play is inspired by the cult-classic documentary Project Grizzly, which similarly is about committing to such an insane project. Time and time again, Jens’ childlike exaggerated positivity about the success of his upcoming suit confuses and irritates his girlfriend and brother, though, as they are forced to deal with the financial toll that the invention is taking on the whole family. This establishes a key theme in the play in which innocent imagination and harsh reality are pitted against one another.
Jens’ confident monologues about heroism draw the audience in, accompanied by sleek projections in the background of hero figures like Jackie Chan, Batman and Robocop. Thumping 80s style music does well to accompany scene changes and often laugh-out-loud physical sequences, and embodies Jens’ childhood fascination with male heroism. In real life, though, Jens is socially awkward and doesn’t consider the downsides of his invention, which at times felt slightly too reliant on playing off the stereotype of ‘lonely gifted genius’. Soon enough, we realise that these hyper-masculine fictional heroes are only filling Jens’ dreams of creating the perfect suit with false hope.
The play, unfortunately, becomes difficult to place, though, once the niche plot delves into Jens’ more depressing childhood trauma, which created his obsession. The economic problems of making the astronaut-like suit (which is suitably cartoonish and functional as designed by Sophia Pardon) threaten to alienate Jens from his loved ones. However, the previous light-heartedness of the story relying on silly humour means that when large claims about male mental health are made towards the conclusion of the play, they feel under-developed. While it is understandable that the aim here is to demonstrate how resources to help men suffering from these issues are scarce, it doesn’t seem to offer any kind of solution. This made the ending of the play seem anti-climactic, even after the effective tension established beforehand by the distorted forest visuals in the background.
Despite this, endearing comedy shines through most of the play; the other cast members, Katy Daghorn and David North, bring life to the production and delight with hilarious scenes. They play multiple characters including wacky radio hosts alongside their main roles, upping the whole slightly mad atmosphere. The inventiveness of prop usage, as they are placed on the wall of Jens’ workshop, combined with the cosy performance venue, really makes us want to support the successes of these characters despite Jens’ often destructive behaviour dragging them down.
Overall, the production is certainly quirky and enjoyable, even if it may become confused in its statements about mental health towards the end of the play. Its underpinning of heroic expectancy doesn’t prove to be as memorable as the warm, genuine scenes laced with comedy, which are a pleasure to watch.
You can catch Neck or Nothing, in all its bizarreness, at the Pleasance theatre in Islington until 4th May. Tickets are available here.
Edited by Dimitrina Dyakova, Deputy Digital Editor