Inspired by the 1996 documentary Project Grizzly, which followed Canadian inventor Troy Hurtubise as he went in search of grizzlies in a bear-proof suit, Fledgling Theatre’s Neck or Nothing shines a light on men’s mental health.
Neck or Nothing tells the story of Jens (James Murfitt), an inventor who lives in his brother Frank’s (David North) garage along with his partner Martha (Katy Daghorn). Still traumatised after getting lost in the woods as a child and encountering what he believed to be a bear, Jens decides to become the superhero that the world needs by building an indestructible suit of armour to protect him from his biggest nightmare. Martha and Frank both support him with his invention, but with money tight at home and Martha wanting to follow her own career dreams, the cracks soon start to show.
Co-written and directed by Christopher Neels and Callum Cameron, Neck or Nothing is a quirky and realistic, if slightly surreal look at one man’s mental health struggles. While the action may be focused on Jens’ ridiculous idea, his spiral into obsession and isolation to distract him from the real issues at hand is recognisable, as is the effect his quest has on his loved ones. The three main characters are believable and likeable – even Jens as he pushes Martha and Frank to the max – and their frustrations are easy to understand. It is the performers who make this show, and all three actors are entertaining to watch. James Murfitt puts in a gripping, believable performance as the troubled Jens, and it’s hard not to warm to him even as he’s gripped by his obsession. He also brings more light relief with his delightfully over-the-top portrayal of Diane, Martha’s eccentric friend. Katy Daghorn particularly excels towards the latter half of the play when the cracks start to show in Martha’s relationship with Jens; while North provides equally strong support as a man torn between wanting to make his brother happy and needing to live in the real world.
Sophia Pardon’s set brings to life Jen’s workshop, with a number of random tools hanging from the back wall and a workbench also doubling as Martha’s counter at the bakery. Her bear-proof suit, complete with a baking tray adorned on the front, is one of the more amusing talking points of the production. The wall is also used as a backdrop for Rachel Sampley’s impressive videos of action films and bears and the like, which visualise Jens’ thoughts and fears.
Neck or Nothing is an entertaining production with laughs aplenty, but at times the comedy takes over, and it would be more effective if the mental health themes were explored further. While we see the effect that a childhood trauma has had on Jens, at times it feels as though the silliness subdues some of the emotional impact of the play. That being said, Neck or Nothing is an engaging and enjoyable play well worth seeing, and is brilliantly performed. Any production which explores the theme of men’s mental health and opens it up for discussion has to be commended.
Neck or Nothing is running at the Pleasance Theatre until 4 May.
Photo credit: Veronika Casarova