REVIEW: Calculating Kindness (Camden People’s Theatre)

Lydia Adetunji’s new play, which was co-devised by director Laura Farnworth, is based on the life of George Price, an American scientist and polymath who had worked on the Manhattan-Project, taught himself the basics of evolutionary genetics and formulated an equation widely acknowledged as the mathematical explanation for the evolution of altruism. The production is presented at the Camden People’s Theatre, only yards from where Price lived, worked and died.

With his Equation of Nepotistic Altruism, Price had proved William Hamilton’s theory that altruism can prosper among selfish animals because self-sacrifice for your next of kin helps propagate your genes and thus serves your own needs. His discovery was so extraordinary that University College London gave Price an honorary position after his first meeting with Professor Smith. Yet Price was unable to cope with his success and the realisation that human kindness was predetermined: the staunch atheist became deeply religious and shared all of his belongings with the homeless to live a life in poverty. He killed himself in a squat in 1975.

Laura Farnworth and her company Undercurrent explore the question what happened to Price after making his unique discovery: “Did he become mentally ill, or was he consumed by a spiritual desire to disprove his own theory: that man is only kind to his own kin?” An interesting question in a time ruled by self-interest and austerity measures that usually affect the poor.

Lucy Sierra’s set is a wooden box – floors, walls, and ceiling consist of polished wooden boards that hide several cabinets, a bed, and a wardrobe. The stage itself is bare. George Price comes on and immediately addresses the audience, shaking hands and explaining that his theory might be too challenging for ordinary people, only a genius like himself is able to grasp it. Price is brimming over with self-confidence as he talks about his success and mentions his father, a pioneer in the art of stage lighting, who died when he was four years old. Hundreds of people attended his funeral service, he was an important man. It is obvious that Price wants to achieve an equally respected status in life. Suddenly the Price character steps out of the play and explains that he is only an idea of George Price. The other character drafts had already been dismissed as too unlikeable. His character is insufferably arrogant and full of himself and has also abandoned his wife and children but he is still likeable because he can mix a “mean Martini”. The question is, is this Price character a truthful representation of Price or is there only a morsel of truth in him?

The story begins as Price, a mathematic geneticist, arrives in London after researching Hamilton’s theory that human altruism is predetermined: There is self-interest in being kind to your kin. Price has developed a mathematical formula that proves Hamilton’s theory. The play jumps back and forth between Price in London and the past when he met devout Catholic Julia on a science project. Although Price is an atheist, he marries Julia but their marriage does not last because Price has no tolerance for religiosity and Julia’s need to consult the monsignor. Price abandons his family in New York and goes to London to make his mark in the world of science and to “shine a piece of light”.

The production starts with a fascinating premise and benefits from an outstanding cast. Adam Burton is remarkable as George Price as he moves between the past and present, full of energy and ambition at first, then coping with various challenges, including a botched thyroid operation, and trying to come to terms that free will might be an illusion. Rachael Spence and Neal Craig are equally strong as Price’s wife and Price’s best friend William Hamilton, along with various other characters.

Unfortunately, the play begins to become slow paced and heavy handed after about 50 minutes and it tries to go into to many directions at the same time. I would have wished for a more in depth discussion of the issues that troubled George Price so deeply that he, a convinced atheist, turned to religion. The drama touches on many events of Price’s life but one just gets only a fleeting glimpse of the main issues, which is a shame because the form and the subject matter of the play is intriguing.

Reviewed by: Carolin Kopplin
Photo: Richard Davenport

Calculating Kindness is playing at Camden People’s Theatre until 16th April