One of the most unsettling things about the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons – a place of many unsettling things, with its seven foot skeletons and pickled fingers, its pâté-like slices of cerebellum and its numerous tools of amputation – are the foetuses, the bottled babies. Neatly preserved and labelled to show the stages of development, human and alien all at the same time, things that lived but never lived: it’s this primal image that sits at the centre of Dave Florez’s troubling two-hander.
Florez is a playwright who enjoys a paddle in waters psychologically brackish. His monologue, Hand over Fist, a play about memory, identity, and its painful aching loss was a critical success at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, earning plaudits for both the writing and for Joanna Bending’s arrestingly intense performance as a woman destined to repeat the same meetings, the same conversations, over and over again, who is uninhibited in her sexual cravings and who, in a memorable central sequence, imagines herself glove-puppeted on her husband’s hot hand in a kind of ecstatically physical eruption.
Hero/Heroine, staged as part of the London Horror Festival by New Wave Theatre, is a messier piece, tangled and untidy in interesting ways. Two former lovers meet on Halloween in his grotty flat, with its sea of stains, half-drunk bottles of JD, porn DVDS and dubiously used tissues. That he still wants her in some way is obvious – when she goes to the bathroom, he leaps on her discarded boots with the filthy glee of DeFlores in The Changeling, inhaling her; it is also pretty clear that their relationship terminated in a way that was both unpleasant and abrupt.
The couple goad each other, tease each other; their shared past providing them both with a source of comfort and pain. As they shoot up and indulge in a bit of awkward masochism, clues are dropped about the reasons for their split. There are traces of Irvine Welsh to both the content and overall tone of the piece, but the nastiness is balanced with something raw and human, thanks in part to the performances of Nina Millns and Bradley Taylor, who spark nicely of one another.
Hanna Berrigan’s production builds the tension gradually and avoids the overtly horrific – until the end at least – but the writing does rather overegg things at times. A sequence where the two characters break off to discuss rejection letters and the other little let-downs of life as a writer seems incongruous and the final spiralling into talk of alien gods and the beauty of mutation doesn’t seem seeded early enough. It’s a troubling piece, a disordered love story which nods to body horror, and there are some giddy passages of writing, but there’s also an issue with overall cohesiveness, kinks in the central thread, and the final reveal is slightly fumbled, lessening its impact.