Monday 8 August 2016

Heads Up – Summerhall, Edinburgh

[seen 06/08/16]

Ok. So. First things first: Heads Up is quite brilliant. It’s well-written, passionately performed, beautifully produced... And, for some completely baffling reason it didn’t completely grab me.

This seems peculiar and perverse, not least because it bears such striking visual and textural (no, I don’t mean textual) similarities to everything from Kieran Hurley’s own Edinburgh Fringe show, Beats; to Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities; to Chris Brett Bailey’s This is How We Die; to a fair few of Chris Thorpe’s mic-and-chair pieces...

But an interesting thing that struck me while watching it was that, in a way, if it didn’t have the sympathetic Scots accent, and Hurley’s impeccable leftie credentials, and Michael John McCarthy’s post-punk score behind it, then really, how was it all that different to a Martin Amis novel?

In about a million ways, I reasoned. I mean, a) you can’t very well take all those things away and still have this piece, b) that’s a stupid thought.

But, well, it’s not a completely stupid comparison.

The basics of Heads Up are a set of interlocking or interweaving stories. People with jobs, with names (and names with a Dickensian level of freighting – Ash, Mercy, Abdullah...), people all referred to here as “you”. We, the audience, are told we’re this character or that character. From behind Hurley’s desk, the accusation, or identification doesn’t quite feel like it travels or sticks (at least, not to the back row on a packed-out Saturday). We’re not a futures trader, or a coke-supercharged pop star, or a pubescent girl who’s had her inappropriate image put online by our idiot ex-boyfriend. Or at least most of us probably aren’t. I mean, I get the strategy, but it feels maybe a bit too forced? And, in the main, the characters feel a bit too symbolic, perhaps a bit too pat, too neatly exemplary. (It’s still great, ok? This is less a review, and more a matter of me splitting hairs, and searching through the experience trying to work out why I didn’t connect with it more...)

Heads Up begins just before some unspecified apocalypse. That, too, feels incredibly Amis-y. Which, in turn, felt comforting. All these apocalypses going round this year, in a way actually feels pretty comfortably retro. The crashing markets, and planes, and buildings of Heads Up feel like the street sadness of Dead Babies, the horrorshow of London Fields, the endless roar of money going wrong in Money. The debt mountains and everything being out of joint almost greet us here like old friends. “Ah, the terrible end of everything!” we think. “Well, we’ve been at The End before...”

And we have. If you’ve read Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, there’s a fascinating chapter in which he talks about the length of cycles in financial markets. Yes, there’s mounting evidence now to suggest that these cycles have finally gone off course, but there’s still plenty in the present recession(s) that recall(s) the massive economic downturn of the seventies. Add to that the tentative cultural revivals: the sense of the late seventies and German electronica and punk giving way to post-punk and both the new romantics and proto modern pop music, and the resurgent fondness for brutalist architecture (it already has its own seventies, drag-king backlash show)...

If World Without Us is the companion apocalypse to Us/Them’s terrorism, then (thanks to my own random Edinburgh curation) Heads Up feels like the companion piece to Greater Belfast [review forthcoming], a piece so soundly reliant on Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones, and the IRA, and The Northern Irish T-word.

It’s weird that this feels like the case, since so much of the action is so firmly, rigorously, thoughtfully and precisely about the here and now. “Revenge Porn” (terrible term for it) has never been a thing before, surely neither has the Pret-a-Manger style chain with zero-hours contracts and the complete lack of workers’ rights? And yet, reading back over the literary fiction of the late seventies (currently The Ice Age by Margaret Drabble – recommended), it’s been striking just how much our current predicament resembles pre-Thatcherism both in terms of affects, but also in terms of attitudes to it. Or maybe, rather, the world of Heads Up feels familiar from the early eighties, because it’s the grown-up child of precisely that era.

I’ve no idea how much this is now even a review of the piece of theatre Heads Up is. So let me reiterate, it’s a truly excellent bit of work. Definitely go see it. And almost certainly it’ll grab you more than it grabbed me. Although, thinking about it, I think it did grab me; but not in the way I was expecting, or that the style of the piece sets you up to expect – it’s quite relentless, but actually, my response to it felt the opposite of visceral. Which is really interesting. Let’s say that’s deliberate; I think it leaves you with some cognitive dissonance, but is maybe all the richer for not having just wrung you out there and then. Heads Up also suffers (for me, and totally unfairly), for being so much like what I already think about the world, and like the cultural energies you imagine swirling around things, that it doesn’t actually feel “original”. Of course it is, and actually it’s a massive achievement to be that on-the-button with pinning all these feelings down into a one-hour, one-man show.

Summerhall, Old Lab – 7.05pm until 28th Aug (not Mondays, except today)

Written and performed by Kieran Hurley
Score by Michael John McCarthy
Directed by Alex Swift
[further credits as and when I find them]

written under the influence of this 2009 Russian band, who kind of prove my point about the seventies/post-punk if nothing else...

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