George Price is an intriguing figure. Originally a staunch atheist, he married then divorced a Catholic woman before undergoing an intense religious conversion. His work was enough to gain him a research position at UCL just 90 minutes after he walked in off the street, yet he died penniless in a squat. His name was given to one of the most important equations in genetics, yet his grave remains unmarked. The contradictions in his life are astonishing, and you can understand why devisers Laura Farnworth and Lydia Adetunji were so inspired to tell his story.
It’s a production that brings together big questions of science, history and religion while presenting a deeply personal narrative of one man’s struggle with the meaning and implications of his most ground-breaking work. Yet it is also rather muddled and, while there are moments that strike a chord, I left with the unsatisfied feeling that I wasn’t much closer to understanding this remarkable, incongruous figure.
Adam Burton makes for an engaging Price, handling well the opening dialogue that flits from scientific theory, to metatheatrical fourth-wall breaks, to rapid character construction. He is convincing throughout, although at times he is held back by a script and a structure that become more confusing than illuminating. The significance of his scientific work is never truly made clear, undermining his brilliance and leaving him to seem rather arrogant and, at times, delusional. The self-reflection of some his monologues – contemplating the ‘versions’ of George Price in previous drafts of the script that we will never see – is a little wearying. While it may be intentional to never allow us this satisfying deep insight into the character, and to maintain a certain elusiveness, the show risks losing sight of why Farnworth and Adetunji think his is a story worth telling.
The mid-to-latter stages of the show are the most compelling, as we see Price disintegrating into uncertainty, squalor and mental fragility. The contrast between Price and Pete, one of the homeless people he welcomes into his house after his conversion to Christianity, is entertaining and absorbing – particularly Pete’s pragmatism in the face of Price’s increasingly insecure grip on the world, despite his new faith that should be giving him a grounding anchor. Multi-roling as Pete, Price’s ex-wife Julia and other minor parts, Rachael Spence gives a stand-out performance, adapting to different roles with ease and proving an engaging performer in each one.
Lucy Sierra’s functional wooden set intelligently makes use of the small space, and Ziggy Jacobs’s lighting is impressive at key moments, with trails of light moving between the wooden tiled blocks. However, in Price’s moments of mental distress, the red light that floods the stage is rather heavy-handed: his state of mind is not obvious at this point, and it’s a little too blunt in its hint of hallucination or madness. Similarly, Nick Rothwell’s sound design doesn’t always complement the action or the rest of the show’s design, its futuristic tones jarring with some of the attempts at everyday realism, particularly in the scene at the laboratory reception.
There are certainly moving and intriguing moments here, as the character of Price grapples with slippery questions of altruism and faith, and as we witness the downward spiral of a bright, engaging figure into a helpless and broken man. Yet we leave with no feeling of being any closer to this character, or having much sense of his wider significance as a scientist or even as a historical figure to be researched, pitied or celebrated. The production throws many elements into a mixing pot, but nothing very clear emerges from it. In the end, it feels oddly emotionally distant.
Calculating Kindness is playing at Camden People’s Theatre until 16 April. For more information and tickets, see the Camden People’s Theatre website. Photo: Richard Davenport