When Bella Heesom found out that her 49-year-old father had developed a brain tumour, she sent her closest friends an email with the subject line “My World Has Exploded A Little Bit”. These words have stuck with Heesom, becoming the title of her debut two-woman show which offers 17 practical steps to managing mortality. The hour-long performance mixes the raw emotion of monologues with what Heesom describes as “farcical performance lecture”. The result is a darkly comic, profound, and heart-wrenching piece of theatre, one which has been highly successful at Edinburgh Fringe and Vault Festival.
As we enter the Bike Shed’s intimate performance space, Heesom and her co-star, Eva Alexander, are there to greet us. We are seated and Heesom gravely relays the moment she was informed of her father’s tumour. We settle in for what is sure to be a sombre piece of theatre. Yet, with no warning, the subdued lighting grows to full-throttle glare and Heesom’s anguished look rearranges into an energetic smile. “Everyone you love is going to die”, Heesom announces. Alexander plays a jaunty tune on her keyboard; the audience is thrown.
The show continues in this fashion, flicking unpredictably between deeply personal confessions and a circus-style guide to bereavement. Corporate management speak dominates these sections, poking fun at any attempts to offer generic, practical advice to the bereaved. Tongue planted firmly in her cheek, Heesom encourages us to accept the impending death of our loved ones immediately, and teaches us to “streamline our mortality management” in the “likely event of subsequent deaths”.
There is audience participation, a great deal of it. The whole affair is rather uneasy, yet this works entirely in the play’s favour. The same discomfort that the audience feels upon being told to hug the stranger sat next to us surrounds discussions of death. By continuously pushing the audience out of their comfort zone, an atmosphere of tackling awkward, often-avoided situations head-on is cultivated. This allows the audience to engage with the narrative unperturbed by its taboo subject matter.
Humour peppers the play, with Alexander taking on the role of bumbling assistant. The comic relief is necessary and effective in parts but often falls short. Slapstick comedy and exuberant misunderstandings somewhat cheapen the show and would have been more successful in a production aimed at children. It’s the play’s more genuine moments of humour which bring real charm to the performance. The demonstration of the portable urinal is both miserable and hilarious, while Heesom’s dig at her concern for the “theatrical merit of the piece” grant her an endearing self-consciousness.
I leave the play shaken but fulfilled, and my fellow audience members appear to feel the same way. We have learnt to steady ourselves at each sudden emotional change, ready to take on whatever is thrown at us next. But it has taken its toll and we are tired. Aware of the effect that they have had on us, Heesom and Alexander offer hugs as we exit and they are accepted gladly. Perhaps, after such a demanding performance, the two of them need a hug just as much as we do.
Heesom will also be performing My World has Exploded a Little Bit in Bedford on 30th June. You can book tickets here.