Head Hand Head: the mantra and the motion of the obsessive compulsive. From thought to action, internal anxiety is manifested – part-safety, part-affliction. Laura Jane Dean’s solo show is, in its simplest terms, an effort to convey the reality of living with obsessive compulsive disorder to an audience. To call it a performance seems inaccurate, perhaps insensitive. Dean is not playing a character with OCD, nor is she offering any exaggerated or crowd-pleasing persona. She sits on her chair, fiddles with her dress, and tells a true story, one that is troubling as well as tender. Dean’s frequent and sincere smile – a smile of thanks, or even apology – which, like the music, breaks the text into distinct sections – is our reminder that this is real, that this is difficult, but also, that it is okay for us and her to be here.
There’s a kind of calm chaos to the narrative, unobtrusively told, a tapestry tracing childhood origins to current and ongoing difficulties. The deceptive simplicity of the story-telling is sometimes tangled by decisive statements of illogical and intricate misconnections. It’s telling that the title is more ‘head’ than ‘hand’; perhaps many of Dean’s compulsions seem harmless enough- touching light switches or handles, checking clothes and sockets, but they are the muted signifiers of an array of huge, potential terrors, traumas and tragedies that proliferate in her mind. Then there’s the exhausting physical and mental toll of the compulsion itself – checking, counting, checking counts and counting checks – in pursuit of a sense of safety that doesn’t ever seem to arrive. Yet Dean does not demand sympathy, nor even complete understanding. What Head Hand Head offers is not necessarily emotional insight but rather more of an incision – acts cut in half to have their centres examined. Dean offers us her experience to contemplate on our own terms. Here is the motion, Dean seems to say, and here is what it means to me.
Seeing her alone on stage, we also get a sense of her loneliness. Her interactions with others – parents, unnamed acquaintances – seem to consist of well-meaning but ultimately radical denials of her experience. Her father gifts her with a keyring pleading ‘don’t worry, be happy’,and she finds herself only yet more agonised, “unable to fulfill its simple request”. Of course, even the word ‘worry’ seems such a trivialisation. Dean does not just worry, because her persistent terror of impending death has the ability to render her almost unable to live.
But this is by no means a tale without hope. Perhaps here, with us, is the place where her fears can be spoken and therefore exist, not to be challenged, exercised or exorcised, but simply acknowledged and considered. In some way, we do hope this communion with us sends her fears, like nocturnal animals, skittering away from the light. The warmth of the brightly lit committee room feels like a genuinely safe space, and there is gentle humour to help along the difficult truths- to be direct with us about her struggle seems a victory rather than any conceding to defeat. “I don’t need to do it when I’m with you,” Dean tells an absent loved one, but maybe she does mean us as well. A gently compelling show with a genuinely admirable cast. To call Laura Jane Dean brave only sounds patronising; we should feel grateful for her generous honesty.
Head Hand Head played at Battersea Arts Centre.