It all starts with a story. Not as the piece of grit that a pearl is formed round, more as the piece of anecdotal evidence that a Daily Mail health-scare is based on, the tiny trigger for a practiced machinery of fear and panic. Laura Jane Dean’s powerful performance about living with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) starts with, and feels like, a deep, long stare in the mirror – dark, mesmerising, and disconcertingly familiar.
Laura – Exeunt’s Artist in Residence, who documented the creation of the piece for this – sits on a chair, and narrates an astonishingly clear route through her convoluted years of struggle with OCD. She starts aged eight, in the backseat of the family car, with her mother explaining to her that she could die at any time. Her mother’s belief in fate unsettles her so much that she becomes desperate to introduce an element of self-determinism into the whole, random process of life and death. She identifies bedtime rituals that have to be performed to stop her from dying; secret genuflections to a different kind of internal, exacting god. Absolution can only come from feeling “right”, a shifting measure that’s more or less demanding from night to night. This feeling “right” shifts from year to year too, as her fears evolve, and find new stories to build on. The title rhythm of head. hand. head. is a tiny snippet from a whole string of staccato checks – her words are turned mechanical, into endless security scans that slow every action down.
Being trapped in Laura’s perspective feels almost dangerous; her explanations of her fears seems so rational, their results so irrational. As the piece progresses, Daisy Orton’s carefully judged direction helps break up her single, persuasive narrative into distinct moods and moments. Laura’s fear of being poisoned leads her to painstakingly pick out minute flecks from food, or throw away bottle after bottle of mineral water straight after opening. In one of a series of shifts from the personal to the theatrical, she lays bottles on the carpet, one by one – a visual demonstration of the neatest, purest kind of waste. Her recitations of her fraught internal lists look and feel so agonising that the similarly theatrical interjection of her pre-recorded voice feels welcome, like a relief from the tension she’s been building. Soon, though, it becomes a kind of authority, an internal monologue shifting into instructions, and an audio guide to finding “right”. As a third voice to the piece, music fades in and out in beautifully judged abstraction – Laura devised the music in collaboration with visiting director Chris Goode, a fluidity that shows.
The tone is dark, but the carpetted setting is gentle, domestic and barely theatrical – it feels safe, and Laura reminds us, as her therapist does, that we can leave at any time. William Aubrey-Jones’s design rests the wooden chair she sat on as a child next to its adult-sized replica on the carpet – comforting, but also a visual reminder that here, the child is mother of the woman. Its this not-shaken-off child that guides the piece, rather than the distinctive language of struggle, therapy and recovery. The piece is full of insight into the internal experience of OCD — perhaps the only thing missing is a sense of outside perspective, of how other people make sense of her behaviour.
As a child, Laura’s Dad gives her a keyring that says “Don’t worry, be happy!” – with the tragicomic edge typical to her delivery, she explains that not being able to obey the command only caused her more anxiety. Its almost impossible to laugh. Laura’s story is so personal, and her delivery so relatable, that we’re completely invested in her reflections, and in the half-stifling mirror world she’s created.