Calculating Kindness, Camden People’s Theatre, review: ‘Stimulating but overstuffed’

Calculating Kindness at CPT Photo Credit: Richard Davenport

Calculating Kindness at CPT Photo Credit: Richard Davenport - Credit: Richard Davenport

Nepotistic altruism: it sounds like a contradiction in terms.

But American scientist George Price produced a mathematical formula – supporting evolutionary biologist WD Hamilton’s theory – which proved we’re more

likely to help close relatives in order to ensure the survival of our genes. Kindness is really self-interest.

Price’s bleak discovery contributed to his breakdown and eventual suicide in a Tolmer’s Square squat, just yards from Camden People’s Theatre.

This dense 85-minute play by Laura Farmworth and Lydia Adetunji (the former directs) was created in concert with British Library, Wellcome Trust and four academic advisors.

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It’s an admirable attempt to communicate complex ideas, filtered through an astonishing biography, but brief scenes short-change the debates and curb dramatic momentum.

Tonal mishmash, from naturalism to winking meta-theatre and surrealism, contributes to a muddled whole. Though sadly rushed, the parallels made between Price’s theories and experiences are fascinating.

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Abandoning his family for career opportunities in London proves individual interest is often prioritised over collective, while ambivalence towards his involvement in the deadly Manhattan Project haunts discussion about relative cruelty to strangers.

Most intriguing is his desire to find meaningful patterns in events, leading to ruinous philanthropy and the screeching U-turn from atheism to evangelical Christianity.

The authors wryly comment on “likeability”, but nevertheless give Adam Burton a tough task with the arrogant, blinkered Price, and the perplexingly unreliable narrative makes it difficult to invest in his journey.

Neal Craig and Rachael Spence do sterling work in supporting roles. Lucy Sierra’s claustrophobic set has clever reveals and produces light flashes, possibly suggestive of synapses firing in Price’s teeming brain.

Ultimately, however, it’s one more element in a stimulating but already overstuffed piece.

Calculating Kindness at Camden People’s Theatre.

Rating: 3/5 stars.

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