Paul Macauley’s new show My Heart is a Spark (By Hello Strawberry) begins with him half-crouched, hands in front of his face, before sliding them apart like opening doors, and launching into a dance routine to Call Me Maybe.
It’s a sweet, cheesy gesture that could signal the beginning of a play playing cute, full of jazz hands and cheap gags about death and depression – and to be fair – there are some of those. But it’s actually far cleverer than that. I won’t spoil the ending but suffice to say, this little gesture becomes a central motif, and a deeper metaphor, in this excellent one-man show, which is based on Paul’s experience of losing his mother, home and relationship at the same time in his life.
My Heart Is A Spark (directed by award-winning theatre-maker Laura Mugridge), has premiered at The Phoenix Art Space; it’s a tiny, intimate but excellently equipped space, and the set is bare but for a flipchart, a laptop and a strange cut-out that looks like a cross between a tooth and a ghost.
It turns out to be exactly what it is. When Paul asks an audience member to hold the tooth and then to sit like his mother did when she asked him where we go when we die, “comfortably…but pensive”, it feels a little awkward – funny, but not, a little shaky and unsure of itself – much like the audience member – and in fact, at times, like Macauley himself, his nerves at this first showing occasionally obvious.
The scene segues between these heartfelt, painful moments in Paul’s memory, and skits in which Paul becomes the estate agent to his old flat, then to a two-hander in which another audience member must embody his extracted tooth (read: all the things he has lost).
And it becomes clear that this show will rely heavily on its audience – not just on their willing participation, but on their willingness to go with the fact-paced switching between characters, times and places, internal and external dialogue.
It mirrors Paul’s own chaotic thought patterns – (“I think too much. Too much for what?!”) as he descends into post-traumatic grief, and would be disorientating were it not for the fact that it is very, very funny. It’s also, at points, very sad.
Macaulay, who won Best New Play at Brighton Fringe in 2017 for Bug Camp, has a natural comic timing and the sort of face that makes you wish him well; and the audience is clearly on his side and in his hands right from Carly-Rae Jepsen start.
It helps that he is also an accomplished musician so that, when he gets out his guitar and starts to play a song entitled “Everyone Dies or Leaves”, it’s not only on point, but surprisingly good. As are the moments when Macauley steps into character, and they are clearly where he feels more confident, becoming, for example, the personification of all the mental wellness advice he receives.
Times during which Paul is himself, speaking about the devastating moments of his mother’s illness and sudden death are clearly harder – understandably – and there were points at which the show felt unpolished. But it dealt lightly with heavy topics and managed to make its audience not just laugh and cry, but enact, with enthusiasm, a coffee shop soundscape and a Sydney beach scene. So Macauley is clearly doing something right.
FOUR STARS ****
“A remarkable off-beat play, highly recommended” (FringeReview on ‘Bug Camp’)
My Heart Is A Spark is on at Phoenix Art Space
10-14 Waterloo Place BN2 9NB