In last year’s sleeper hit, Until You Hear That Bell, writer and performer Sean Mahoney told the story of his youthful passion for boxing, dressed in his black training tracksuit. The story ended with Sean, closer to the present day, popping into his old gym, the worlds of his past and present meeting and glancing, sizing each other up with something like a respectful nod.
This time Mahoney looks very different: long hair, stripy top, fashionable dark blue coat. He’s in a different world now, and trying to work out what that world is, what it looks like. With almost no set and significantly less movement than Until You Hear, costume does a lot of work in Back of the Head with a Brick. Mahoney wears a rucksack (square cornered, in a beautiful grey) throughout almost the entire show and a model New York yellow taxi juts out on a badge atop his coat’s breast pocket. Both artefacts suggest a character in transit, between things, emotionally and physically.
The structure of Back of the Head is, in a way, like this too. It’s much more diffuse and less linear than Until You Hear. Whereas last year’s story had clear conflict, resolution and character arc, this one is told in a series of overlapping vignettes. Whilst the assuredness of Mahoney’s storytelling convinces us that he knows what he’s doing, the non-linear structure asks a little more of us as an audience. There are a lot of things for us to piece together ourselves, connections for us to spot. We have to trust Mahoney that this is all going somewhere. And that there might not always be connections – that not everything will ‘fit’ – but that things might be worth hearing about anyway.
This means that when you’re in the room with it, Back of the Head doesn’t grab you and drag you with it like Until You Hear did. But afterwards, as I look back at it and try to piece together some of those connections and patterns, I find a more mature work that I like just as much, but in different ways.
Until You Hear had a tightly defined world of only around three different locations, and initially in Back of the Head, it feels like Sean’s patch has expanded to include a wider range of characters and locations. But when I think about it, the new settings still offer a certain unity: almost every location – various London cafes, Macdonald’s, Sean’s own kitchen – is one that produces food.
Other patterns shine like mirrors, brightest when I’m furthest away, looking back at the piece as a whole. There’s a highly lyrical coda about a silver fish, which I only realise afterwards is a call-back to a dazzling description earlier in the piece about coveting Tim Key’s silver laptop when Sean sees regularly working in a cafe. The fish’s scales seem to hold everything, just as Sean imagines that Key’s hardware works so well that he can open all the internet browsing tabs that he wants – inspired details to hold in dialogue with one another. And now, as I type this review, I look at my own tabs above the Google Doc I have open. They look, I think, like fish scales.
As before, it’s Mahoney’s register and syntax that sets his writing apart. This time he needs to be (and is) subtler with shifts of register because he’s describing an authorial persona whose class is harder to place so exactly, and more inventive with changes in pace, because there is nothing like the training and match scenarios that naturally lend themselves to segments of increased (or decreased) speed. As we listen, we feel these shifts like sliding blocks, falling one below the other, broken sometimes by poetic line, at other times by sentence, and always feeling just in place.
The only thing that’s less subtle in this show’s script than in Until You Hear is the more highly versified sections, particularly those that use half-rhyme, to which Mahoney’s delivery or the piece’s more settled overall tone (or both) draw attention. Last time, we hardly noticed the turns. The decision is probably a good one: because the play’s plot is one of stasis rather than evolution, the shifts in form provide at least variety and textures needed to mark out the phases of the hour’s monologue.
But don’t expect these shifts to be huge. The different segments of this story sit together side-by-side without really telling us why they’re there. They feel evenly weighted, quietly balanced. Mahoney helps us feel how different elements can sit beside each other, exerting their mass without intruding. This is especially powerful when he talks about the legacy of a friend’s suicide. The topic is neither excused nor sentimentalised. Instead, it’s allowed to sit – to sit between Sean and the old friends he meets, between Mahoney and us, between the scenes where people are talking about it and the scenes they’re not. It sits, in other words, where tragedy almost always sits in real life, outside the narrative. By not explaining it, Mahoney makes sure he doesn’t explain it away.
In refusing to coalesce his scenes into a single thesis, Mahoney presents a fragmentary picture of contrasts and contradictions that refuse to resolve or cancel each other. With rucksack on, and a taxi over his pocket, he pivots between locations, people, pasts and futures – a journey that, on so many levels, leaves us asking: where next?
Back of the Head with a Brick was on at Summerhall until 25th August, as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info here.