head/lining, The Pleasance

by Diana Miranda

The downstairs venue has a combo treat this weekend – an indie-rock gig, a spoken word poetry slam and a solo show. All of that is under the single name of head/lining, a gripping play written and performed by Charlie Heptinstall.

head/lining narrates the memories of a man who excavates his upbringing in a British working-class neighbourhood. He traces episodes traversed by his father’s alcoholism, his mother’s depression, and his coping strategies as a teenager, encountering homelessness, abuse and mental health problems. The storyline feels like it’s looking back onto a path that has been cautiously navigated by the teller before, but whose narration is still charged with struggle, and that uses storytelling, poetry, and music as ultimate coping mechanisms.

head/lining sets out to uncover the potential of words as a healing power, and how they can create a path to make sense of oneself and our place within our surroundings. This show not only talks about words and poetry as intermediaries between the self and the outside, but it demonstrates it through its palette of narrative forms, making it as entertaining as it is poignant.

Heptinstall is in control of the stage. He captures the audience’s attention and holds onto it tightly, sometimes through humour and sometimes through sorrow. Heptinstall shifts abruptly from character to character, sometimes struggling to catch up with himself, but always committed to the narration and never failing to keep the audience absorbed. His smooth, even-minded narration contrasts with sections of spoken word poetry that render glimpses of unfiltered, fierce thoughts emerging as an unstoppable impulse, like the metronome that accompanies them.

Jordan El Balawi’s musical support gives great solidity to the show. While a second presence seems a bit out of place at times on such a small stage, and the vibrant chords tend to pull focus, he blends into the narrative as a reliable sidekick. As the story unfolds, he occasionally becomes a caring mate in a support group or a comical worker in a clinic. But, without a doubt, El Balawi’s main merit is injecting musical power to the protagonist’s tunes (composed by Dan Follows).

head/lining unveils the prejudices linked to race and gender that run deep in society and that our life stories may absorb unconsciously. However, the story doesn’t aim to lecture, but to share. Heptinstall asks the audience to take what they will of it. I consider my blind spots, where my surroundings reproduce bigotry and machismo under the guise of routine and ‘such is life’-ness. head/lining tackles just that from the context of a working-class, white British man who exposes how such blind spots may threaten relationships and self-care.

At the heart of this entertaining mix of thrilling music and storytelling, head/lining is an offer of connection. Heptinstall constantly interlocks glances with the audience as if to acknowledge that storytelling is a two-way street and we are not alone, as isolated as an experience may seem.

head/lining runs through 30 July.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

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