Calculating Kindness (Camden People's Theatre)

The production based on the life of George Price never quite takes off

Calculating Kindness
Calculating Kindness
© Richard Davenport

After working on the Manhattan Project and turning his hand to science journalism, George Price moved to London and devised a ground-breaking equation to explain the evolution of altruism. Along the way he married, divorced, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, was cured, and underwent a religious conversion that led him to give most of his possessions away to the poor and invite roughsleepers to share his home.

It's a fascinating life story, but one that director Laura Farnworth and writer Lydia Adetunji fail to do justice to with Calculating Kindness, a dramatically ambitious but ultimately muddled piece of new writing.

It all begins promisingly. George (Adam Burton) is an intriguing figure, telling his story with a bold self-awareness, eager to point out the slippery nature of character in the playwriting process and offering up different versions of himself. This meta approach fits nicely within the broader themes of the piece – script development as theatrical evolution – but has negative consequences as far as our relationship with Price himself.

The character – at least as Burton plays him here – is too slippery for us to fully invest in, which makes it very hard to care about what comes to pass. The rest of the characters in the drama – Price's wife, the surgeon who operates on him, the homeless people he takes in, played variously by Rachael Spence and Neal Craig – have more minor roles but are more fully realised.

The other major problem is that, watching the play, it's unclear both what George's equation actually means and how important it is in the grand scheme of things. In an understandable attempt to weave in as many of Price's fascinating preoccupations as possible – co-incidence and free will among them – Farnworth and Adetunji have lost their grip on the science that underpins this story. The result, again, is that it's hard to care about our hero.

A clever set design by Lucy Sierra, whose wooden panelling is a receptionist's desk one minute, a wardrobe the next and a canvas for the flashing of synapses in the brain the next, offers moments of diversion. Nick Rothwell's sound design is satisfying too, seamlessly blending the literal and the abstract to create a convincing canvas to the tale, from parties to park benches to plinky-plonky soundtracks to a scientific chitchat.

There's almost a compelling piece of theatre here, but not quite.

Calculating Kindness runs at Camden People's Theatre until 16 April.