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Calculating Kindness

Co-devised by Laura Farnworth and Lydia Adetunji, written by Lydia Adetunji
Undercurrent and Camden People's Theatre in partnership with the British Library
Camden People's Theatre

Adam Burton as George Price (with his formula) Credit: Richard Davenport
Neal Craig as W D Hamilton (or possibly John Maynard Smith) and Adam Burton as George Price Credit: Richard Davenport
Rachael Spence as Julie and Adam Burton as George Price Credit: Richard Davenport

This is an intriguing play about an extraordinary man: George Price. Son of an actress and an inventor of stage lighting equipment, he went briefly to Harvard, then to Columbia University before being recruited in his early twenties to join the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. In this and other things he played a minor role but was convinced that he was destined to do something of great importance. He saw himself as a polymath problem solver who could turn his hand (his mind rather) to anything.

In 1967, divorced, he started new life in London, haunting its academic libraries in search of inspiration. It was there he came across the work of Imperial College evolutionary biologist W D Hamilton on the development of altruism. In a paper that sought to explain altruistic behaviour, he presented an equation that Price re-wrote. Price's claim to fame lies in this revised form.

That equation is incomprehensible to me and probably to you but it expresses the relationship between kinship and altruism in mathematical terms that so impressed Hamilton and his colleagues that, only 80 minutes after conning his way into meeting the man, Price had been given an honorary position at Imperial.

George Price tells his own story, or at least what he calls the ”latest version” of it, one in which, he says, he is a nicer person than in some earlier ones. How much is true? He tells us he met his ex-wife in a bar, then says that is not so. They both worked on the Manhattan Project. Later he says he met Jesus. You may not believe him and perhaps it is a metaphor but it did change his life.

In bravura performance, Adam Burton gives us a quirky Price who is remarkably engaging, shaking hands with the front row, addressing remarks to individuals. This is a man of bubbling energy who seems sometimes to freeze in thought or in deep depression. Often there is Nick Rothwell’s sound score suggesting the complexities boiling up in his brain as he searches for “a piece of the truth” he’s convinced he is going to find. And he does find it, conducting an orchestra in wild celebration on his completing the equation.

Though it is halfway to a one-man show, he isn’t alone. There is Rachael Spence as his ex-wife Julie, who turns up to find him in London as well as being in the back-story as a stone-walling receptionist and as homeless amputee Pegleg, who gets a washed-up Price a place in a squat, while Neal Craig plays the academics, the butcher over whose shop Price lives and the surgeon friend who operates on his cancerous thyroid.

These all feel like flesh and blood characters that stand up to the close scrutiny of this intimate venue set off by the contrasting stylisation of Laura Farnworth’s direction with a set made up of raised plywood panels, including floor and ceiling. They can turn into cupboards, doors and drawers and from behind lights flash like the brain’s synapses sparking.

Calculating Kindness sets up the opposition between the nepotistic altruism that the formula calculates and the extreme Christian charity to which Price’s conversion leads him (which could itself have a big make-yourself-feel-good factor on the part of the giver). It doesn’t set out to explain the elements of the Price Equation or explore its ideas with any clarity. It gives us instead an intimate narrative that provides a lively sketch of a quirky individual and his boiling brain.

At times it seems to go nowhere but when, well into its 90 minutes, it starts to feel too long, a theatrical effect provides a stimulus to engage the attention. The theatrical magic of staging and acting isn’t matched by clarity of content, but it does suggest that a brain that can see some things so sharply but which can co-exist with confusion.

Devotedly Catholic ex-wife Julie, faced with a George who has got God, declares, “there is a difference between conversion and breakdown.” The signs of that breakdown are seen long before its tragic resolution but “this version” of Price’s story does not clarify its causes, though it gains added significance from the place of performance. Price lived in London just round the corner from this community theatre, the squat where he ended up and the place where he killed himself only yards away.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton