Ovalhouse, London – until 27 May 2017
It’s both a lecture and a life-changing series of events, the story of losing your parents while teaching an attentive audience how to cope with and ultimately conquer grief. Mortality management, as Bella Heesom calls it. My World Has Exploded A Little Bit is a gut reaction to the devastating news that she receives time and time again, but also a detached observation that can be rationally analysed and countered with an appropriate action plan. Grief comes along unexpectedly and affects us all differently.
Donnacadh O’Briain is intently focussed on juxtaposition in this work – comedy with tragedy, serious poignancy with light-hearted merriment. At times it’s full of pathos, at times it’s comfortably awkward. Because the reaction to grief is like that; who knows what to say when someone has lost a loved one? Why isn’t there a prescribed way to react, accept and move on? Heesom and giddy co-performer Eva Alexander attempt to categorise the stages. There are 17 of them, each rationally laid out and academically presented – so much for denial, anger sadness, bargaining and acceptance.
But academic doesn’t mean dry, far from it. O’Briain incorporates simple, tasteful props and artistic devices to make light of even the most painful and soul-destroying moments, a determination to live life to the full until its end. Heesom and Alexander put on their smart-looking spectacles and are shielded from emotion, protected and wrapped up in rationality. The message is clear – normalise grief, approach it logically and factually dissect it into manageable chunks. Heesom has something of Emma Thompson about her in this character – so direct and blunt as to be gleefully shocking. Alexander by contrast is whimsical and peppy, child-like in her portrayal. Another of O’Briain’s juxtapositions that makes the pair a classically comedic double act.
“These are the days of miracle and wonder” – that is Heesom’s dying father’s mantra, a reminder that we should live the days we have and not worry about the future ones we are losing. This message seeps out in her lecture, despite her best efforts to keep it factual and serious. Musical interludes, enthusiastically executed by Alexander, break up the text and emphasise each of the steps. It becomes a self-help video, a how-to guide that we keep in the house ready to refer to when it does happen to us. For the most part, Heesom seems detached from her reality – a coping strategy, a way in which to deny the events unfolding. She will feel better; she will feel normal; she will have conquered death. Sudden switches from pragmatic to overwhelmingly emotional are executed with ease – Heesom aptly showcasing how the human brain cannot always control what to feel and when to feel it.
My World Has Exploded A Little Bit ends when the lesson ends… except it doesn’t. Because death doesn’t just happen once – the fictional deity that Heesom rationalises away doesn’t leave us alone after one bout of grief. But that’s ok, because when it creeps up on us a second time we are more prepared. We have been through the plan, so we can accelerate the steps. Until Heesom realises that rationale and reality don’t matter – sometimes we all just need to break down. So, she does. She lets her emotions fly after keeping them so controlled for 60 minutes. O’Briain gives her full licence to lash out and she takes it with gusto.
Heesom and Alexander, light and shade, severity and whimsy. This is a show of constantly clashing, contrasting themes. Head and heart, emotion and reason. Because death can’t be reasoned with. Everyone is going to die. Everyone we know is going to die. That is a fact, but it’s also a hard pill to swallow.