The scribblings and sketches of Miriam Gillinson, arts journalist
'Calculating Kindness' review or 'Something doesn't add up here.'
'Calculating Kindness', Lydia Adetunji Camden People's Theatre, 31st March 2016 Written for Time Out
Why do we go out of our way to help our family yet walk past a tramp on the street? Apparently it’s down to genetics. In 1967, American scientist George Price left his family in New York (a selfish decision that would later prove deeply ironic) and moved to London to work with evolutionary biologist WD Hamilton. In little time and with no background in genetics, Price created an equation to describe Hamilton’s theory of nepotistic altruism: the idea that we help our kin in order to further our genes. Price then grew deeply depressed by his theory and eventually committed suicide, just metres away from Camden People’s Theatre, the stage for his story.
It’s a story that is ridiculously juicy – a beautiful blend of human and scientific considerations – but director Laura Farnworth and playwright Lydia Adetunji have been slightly overwhelmed by their source material. ‘Calculating Kindness’ has been created in partnership with the British Library and with support from the Wellcome Trust, as well as input from four academic advisors; you can really hear all those voices clamouring to be heard in Adetunji’s smart-but-muddled script. The writing never settles and the scenes – purely academic one moment, surreal the next – clash awkwardly.
Lucy Sierra’s set is Kafkaesque: wooden panels line the floor, ceiling and walls and hem the actors in. As Price’s life begins to fall apart, lights blast through the walls and Nick Rothwell’s eerie music trickles overhead. Delusions overwhelm Price: his surgeon transforms into a butcher; the stage pulses and moans. It’s exultantly theatrical yet strangely superfluous and makes little sense of Price’s late-life conversion to Christianity and eventual slide into depression.
Adam Burton invests Price with a brittle charisma but, alongside Rachael Spence and Neal Craig (who inhabit a range of roles with gusto), he is slightly outplayed by the endless theatrical flourishes. Late in the play, Price cries out: ‘I wrote an equation I couldn’t get out of!’ There are a few moments, when the stage throbs red and human nature seems to curdle, that get thrillingly close to this sentiment. But, for most of the time, it’s the audience who feel trapped in this dense and demanding show.