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Steph, a young actress taken too soon, has been dead for three years. Re-materialising on the Jermyn Street Theatre stage, she has just forty minutes to impart to her audience her learned wisdom on life, death, and the anxious human condition.
Heads or Tails, written and performed by Skye Hallam, is a wide-reaching monologue strung together in five neat chapters. A voice (God herself? — note the pronoun) pipes up between each one as an authoritative ticking clock, reminding Steph of how much time she has left on earth to speak to us. This structure deeply informs the content; by the end, with one precious minute remaining, Steph’s knowing smirk gives way to a nervous spew of cliche reassurances. It’s a vulnerable disclosure that the fear of inevitable endings is a human quality from which we’ll never be quite freed (even after life).
The first chapter begins boldly with commentary on ‘cancel culture’, and the cautious legacy we award to problematic artists based on a naive dichotomy of right and wrong. The criticism well-meaningly reminds us to forgive our own flaws, but seems a little naive in itself. I idolised Michael Jackson as a kid too, Steph, but I don’t have to mount a “moral high-horse” to feel a bit uncomfortable when I hear his music now. Empathy for those who have been hurt is, too, a human trait.
The script enjoys multiple whimsical name-drops — she regularly hangs out with Alan Rickman and Barry Chuckle in the after-life. Given this, I’d prefer if the emphasis were on how the hierarchy of celebrity doesn’t matter in death, rather than the morally questionable message that being a bit (or a lot) of a dick doesn’t matter in the end (especially if you were talented).
Steph is sharply sardonic but absolutely brimming with heart — exactly the kind of warmly relatable person you’d want to chat through the big, existential topics with. Certain characteristics flirt closely with Phoebe Waller-Bridge-isms (witty or earnest asides; lamenting the pressures of upholding modern feminism, etc). Since the show is generously peppered with well-rooted pop-culture references, there’s definitely room for these influences/near-impersonations to have been acknowledged (especially given the spiritual themes in Fleabag, Season 2 — come on!).
The text overall is bright and humorous, confronting us off-guard with smatterings of heavier, heightened poetics. The few details and regrets of Steph’s own life that surface throughout are, however, fairly generic (she was never a mother, for instance). Given the gorgeously playful detail in which she describes the after-life, I’d be moved to see intricacies of Steph’s own history awarded the same vivid and sentimental attention.
Luke Dale’s free camera work places us in a very live viewership, capturing Steph and her audience in a relaxed, conversational light. Given our protagonist’s spiritual persona, though, there are missed creative opportunities for the paired-back visuals to be elevated with a bit more magic post-production.
Steph characterises worry as the most earthly of all human conditions. She even misses it, at times. Ultimately, her message comes down to gratitude: for those we love, for those we’ll miss, and for everything we’re missing right now by worrying too much. Death has confronted us all on a universal level this past year, but Heads or Tails compassionately reminds us that even though “death is, actually, all around” (did I mention the culture references?), it need not be so feared.
‘Heads or Tails’ streams on demand for Living Record Festival until February 22. For information and tickets, see Living Record Festival online.