Before the play even begins, the minimalist set of a table topped only with lights, sound equipment, and a pile of notes immediately creates a palpable sense of intimacy. Barefoot, Kieran Hurley sits at the desk and, after a brief ‘Hello’, strikes a match and lights the single candle which stands behind the lone microphone. He then informs us that we are about to hear a story about the end of the world.
The lack of scenery foregrounds the role of story-telling in this one-man show, and Kieran Hurley does an excellent job as the narrator of the experiences of the four characters. The stories of Mercy – a financial advisor possessed with the horrifying knowledge of an impending crash that will destroy the markets; Ash – an anti-social thirteen-year-old who has fallen victim to revenge porn; Leon – a self-important, cocaine-fuelled music icon; and Abdullah – a frustrated and emotionally exhausted cafe worker, are relayed with ferocity and exceptional clarity by Hurley. Sitting at the desk for the majority of the performance, Hurley’s use of facial expression and body language provides a clear distinction between the narrative voice and the voices of the characters. The distinction is aided by the inclusion of John Michael McCarthy’s pulsating music, operated by Hurley throughout the 70 minute show. McCarthy’s soundtrack works well with the at times feverish quality of Hurley’s performance, and effectively encapsulates the growing tensions that boil over as each character reaches crisis point. There are a couple of instances where the soundtrack overwhelms Hurley’s narration, making some words slightly harder to hear, yet these occurrences are not disruptive and seem overall to fit with the tone of the show.
The use of second person narration, and Hurley’s prolonged stares into the audience, immerse his spectators in the lives of these four individuals as they reach their respective breaking points and are confronted with the oncoming apocalypse. Yet this immersion is punctured by a somewhat overzealous transitional moment just over midway through the show. Rising from his seat, Hurley shifts away from narrating Mercy’s failed attempt to warn others of the end of the world and delivers a meta declaration of the parallels between these stories and the lives of the audience. It is a moment which veers the narrative away from the competently crafted style in which it has been delivered until this point, and feels both jarring and unnecessary. The preceding set up is sufficient in coaxing the audience into reflecting upon our own society and imagining how it would respond if confronted with impending doom; by directly calling upon the audience to recognise the parallels between the city of Heads Up and its own, the narrative switches from being subtle and thought-provoking to overtly self-aware and expositional, which is an unfortunate shift. Fortunately, this moment is fleeting, and after sitting back down, discarding his suit jacket, rolling up his sleeves and undoing his top button, Hurley resumes his narration in the style of the first part of the show, and the narrative quickly recovers its understated and compelling effect.
Poetically written and powerfully performed, Heads Up delivers an enthralling story-telling experience. Hurley transitions seamlessly between the multiple voices and gives an unfalteringly energetic and intense performance throughout the production. The heavy darkness emphasised by the sparse lighting is lifted by the dry humour which is competently incorporated without costing the performance its contemplative focus. Laying bare the fierce pace and rabid nature of modern living, Heads Up provides an opportunity to consider our own existence in this hurtling world – offering meditations on empathy, power, feeling purposeful and living life in the present – in a thoroughly engaging way.