‘Ripe with oddball characters & well-crafted dialogue’: SEVERED HEADS (Online review)

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Having enjoyed the theatrical richness of Angels In America yesterday, it was time to calm things down a little and go for something rather more stripped back. I reflected that 10 days ago I had embarked on watching a series of short plays called Severed Heads and so, as I like completion, it was high time for a second helping. They use a one character, one camera set up so there could not be more of a contrast to the preceding epic.  As with the first tranche of three, Justin McDevitt’s plays deal with forms of obsession and angst in which someone loses their head – often literally.

First up this time round was a piece called The Dolls Themselves. This focuses on Brandon who has taken to collecting various iterations of Britney Spears; in case you’re feeling uneasy I should explain that these are in doll form. He has been a fan since he was younger and gradually tries to recapture his childhood by trading with a collector who has what Brandon wants but won’t quite admit to – Britney dolls.

As the piece unfolds Brandon shares events from the past that have a bearing on the present such as his relationship with his aunt Carrie, his desire to be an actor and the time when he was name called at summer camp and in a fit of pique went home and decapitated his doll collection. Turns out he’s not the only one with violent tendencies as the collector who he trades with decides he wants the dolls back again. Brett Radek gives Brandon an air of vulnerability as through the scenes he gradually retreats into the bathroom and sits huddled up; this time aunt Carrie is not around to help. I found this an engaging piece put over by Radek with an air of calm that belied the character’s troubled soul; I wasn’t sure I cared for the ending too much as it seemed a bit underpowered.

The longest of the six pieces is Aggie Cracks The Case. Megan Jeannette Smith features as a lecturer in the occult who becomes obsessed with a story about a girl called Jenny who wears a green ribbon round her neck but won’t reveal why. This is an actual story (as opposed to one that McDevitt has invented for the play) and from a quick bit of research it seems that it is one that has caused something of a stir on the internet probably mostly fuelled by people such as Aggie who have various convoluted theories about what it all means.

Start here if you’re interested though, warning, it does contain spoilers (that said, if you can’t work out what happens then you haven’t been paying attention to the premise of this series). Anyway, Aggie’s fascination spills over into her real life; she seems to know (or – hint – have known) an inordinate number of people called Jenny including her own sister, her best friend and her current boss who had better beware. Towards the denouement everything becomes dreamy and rather soporific and the central figure heads inside herself; it might have been more appropriate to leave out the second half of the title.

Talking of titles (ooh, smooth segue) I don’t know if it was intentional but the last piece, being called Beware The Truffle Man, recalls the line from the Lewis Carroll poem “Beware the Jabberwock” – which also, of course, was decapitated. Although all the pieces in the series make reference to the pandemic this centres on it more than most.

Eric (Mason Thomas Hensley) used to be an accountant but has had to move into catering once his original job becomes unviable. He is at the end of a small scale production line for handmade chocolate truffles wrapping them individual in foil squares and taking a growing pride in what he is doing. However, the pride starts turning to obsession. He is also at increasing odds with his family, especially his actor brother who has managed to get a part in a TV movie/series and, in his own mind anyway, the family relegate Eric to being a bit of a footnote.

These two areas of his life coalesce in the form of Michel, the truffle maker, on whom his protégé exacts a terrible revenge. This short mordant black comedy is as rich as some of the truffles being made as Eric’s obsessions descend into insanity – there’s a humorously disastrous Thanksgiving dinner and some nice sideswipes at streaming channels. Here and there Hensley seems a little ill at ease with the dialogue but mainly convinces as someone succumbing to societal, family and his own pressures.

McDevitt’s short series has been grown from an interesting premise and is ripe with some oddball characters and well-crafted dialogue. Following in Alan Bennett’s footsteps (“ which I credit entirely for my love of writing monologues”) he has peopled these pieces with men and women who gradually reveal their true natures to an audience who can breathe a collective sigh of relief that we’re not like that – are we?

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John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.
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John Chapman on RssJohn Chapman on Twitter
John Chapman
John Chapman works as a freelance education consultant, writer and copy editor. Prior to this, he was an Assistant Headteacher specialising in English and Drama. John first took to the stage as a schoolboy pretending to be a Latin frog. Decades later, he has been involved with 150+ productions, usually as an actor or director. He is currently a member of Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington, London. In 2016, he was in their “mechanicals” team that worked as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Play For The Nation, appearing both at the Barbican and in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2004, he served as a panellist on the Olivier Awards; he is currently an Offies assessor. He reviews for a variety of websites, writes his own independent blog 2ndFromBottom about his theatrical life.

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