I’ve been feeling sad about missing the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. That said, the opportunity to see excellent theater in London is in no way diminished by the annual grand exodus Oop North, as My World Has Exploded A Little Bit proves. Offered to me as “brave and humorous show that shines a brand new light on mortality,” I thought it sounded like fantastic counterprogramming to my usual light summer fare (circus, cabaret, burlesque, any outdoor event involving Pimms) and quickly made a reservation for one – plenty of time for saucy songs at the Soho Theater in the 9:30 PM slot.
At first, it seemed that I’d entered a bizarre pseudo-self help session, complete with wacky presenters (Bella Heesom, in glasses, and her accompanist and sidekick Esh Alladi) who shook our hands and welcomed us to their talk on “20 Steps to Beat Death” (or something like that, forgive me as I chose not to write it down). Just as we are settling into a night of slightly macabre humor, Bella pulls the rug out from under us: we’re actually not at a lecture, we’re about to be walked through how she dealt with the death of her father, from first announcement to the protracted death to the funeral and grieving.
If I wanted to keep with the way the show is structured, what I should have done is blurt out “BUT NO WAIT FUNNY BIT HERE” right after the word “father” in the above sentence, but I’m not going to other than, at this moment, to say that just when things start seeming really bleak, Bella and Esh frequently take a left turn and go back into the “self help”/lecture format. But really, this show is very much about walking alongside Bella as she goes down a very dark path. Theater is frequently shit at dealing with death – it’s kind of a story ending device, really, so deaths have to be quick in order for the forward momentum to continue – but Heesom does not flinch away at all of the bits and bobs, the icebergs and glaciers that come together to make the actual experience of dealing with an anticipated death. It’s something few people experience as early in life as Bella has, so it’s very helpful to live this experience with a guide, and all the better that it’s one who’s not there to rush you through a story but who is instead giving you an opportunity to live out something that, truthfully, it is better to be prepared for.
I’ll repeat what she says. We are all going to die. I am going to die. You are going to die. Everyone you know is going to die. But for some reason, it still seems like a surprise, in part (I think) because humans don’t like to think about mortality. But it’s really helpful to do so; partially because (as per the advice given in this show) it lets you respond better when you have to deal with it, instead of finding yourself unable to make decisions or plan in any way; but more because it lets you live your life in a way that maximizes the greatest of gifts: the time you have to spend with people you love. Let’s get in a quote from the Flaming Lips:”Do you realize?, that everyone you know someday will die/And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know/You realize that life goes fast” – and, to put in a word from Bella, tell them that you love them (or “vole” them if you have to resort to anagrams to make the words sound fresh).
I loved the useful, thoughtful advice Bella had to share with us about how to handle these really bad spots, and the way she dropped in some lovely bits of philosophical struggling with theism and even some math; but what I loved about this show the most was a chance to share Bella’s memories of some special people in her life: her mother and her father. Because, as she says, remembering people – keeping their memory alive – is one of the only ways you can keep the dead alive; and I was happy to be with her as we, as a group, took some time to remember what wonderful people they were. I was not at all comfortable about practicing hugging my neighbor, but I was happy as hell to sit in my front row chair with tears trickling down my face at sadness for Bella’s loss (and the way it tugs at my heart to know that yes, this too will me my, and our, fate one day). The comic was well counterbalanced with the tragic but the feeling I walked away from this show was, “I wish I could have known them so I could have told them both how wonderful they were and how much their daughter loved them.” And I desperately wanted a hankie. Nice work, Ms Heesom.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 13th, 2015. I promise you it’s actually life affirming while also not being stupid or shallow.)