Subtitled A Logical, Philosophical Guide to Managing Mortality, Bella Heesom’s show is on the face of it a self-help seminar: a structured plan for coping with the inevitable truth that our loved ones will one day die. But there’s more to it than that – far, far more. Interspersed with her presentation, Heesom enacts beautifully-realised scenes from her own life story, describing how her much-loved father died from a brain tumour just a few short years ago.
The programme says this is a true story – and for once, I completely believe it. There’s a raw honesty to these remembered vignettes, played out with heart-stopping straightforwardness and illustrated by simple sketches projected onto the screen. The story’s gentle twists and turns are compelling, magnified as they are by the gravity of the scenario, and there are sudden insights into the processes of death which can only come from real-world experience. Looking round the audience, I saw many people in tears; on a different day, one of those people might have been me.
But I’m here to do a job, and my job is to review this show as a whole. I don’t in any way underestimate how difficult it must be for Heesom to share her real-life tale, but her artistic task in these segments is quite a simple one; if you tell a harrowingly candid story – one with profound resonance for many people – then naturally they’ll cry. Creatively, the more intriguing part of this show is the mock seminar which surrounds the story. And it’s here that I start to have my doubts.
In contrast to the wistful and sorrowful tone of her memories, Heesom’s PowerPoint presentation is upbeat, optimistic, and thoroughly practical. Follow her guidance, she tells us, and we can conquer death – by which she means accepting it, making it an experience we know how to process and respond to. There’s the kernel of something brilliant here; we soon come to realise that Heesom’s detailed action plan is in fact a retelling of her own specific story, and that she hasn’t coped as “logically and philosophically” as she’d have us believe. But the trouble is, we already knew that – the breathtakingly poignant opening scene has made the situation clear. Emotionally, I think the script goes too big too early, missing the opportunity to let subtler insights evolve.
And the repeated comic interventions from the onstage musician, Eva Alexander, grated horribly. Alexander’s needy character is well-realised, thoroughly convincing, and skilfully portrayed… but also excruciatingly annoying. This isn’t dark humour to relieve the mood; it’s a complete and jarring change of tone, like a drunken neighbour who bursts into the room firing party poppers in the middle of a late-night confessional with your closest friend. You could maybe do that once and get away with it, but here, it happens over and over again.
The balance does recover towards the end. As time goes on, Heesom steps back from her false jollity, and when Alexander finally plays her keyboard properly – like we always knew she could do – the effect is electrifying. A second spin through the PowerPoint slides delivers an unexpected but very fitting sting in the tail, and reminds us that when it comes to life’s big shocks, there’s never a foolproof formula.
To sum up, there’s so much about My World Has Exploded A Little Bit that’s both important and successful. The seminar, for all that it’s a parody, carries some important messages – and the catharsis induced by the candid memories was plain for all to see. But the combination of the two doesn’t quite work, and the frequent flip-flops in mood were just too much for me.