The image of a grey-faced, woolly puppet has become inseparable with All in a Row, a new play by Alex Oates at Southwark Playhouse. It’s a play that makes the decision to represent Laurence, an 11-year-old non-verbal autistic child, using a puppet, alongside a cast of conventional actors – a decision that’s met with criticism ever since it was unveiled in a trailer for the show.
What’s surprising, watching the actual play, is how peripheral this much-discussed puppet feels. You could stage All in a Row without Laurence ever appearing on stage, because he’s more of a catalyst than a character. He exists to throw lives into turmoil, to pose ethical dilemmas, to reveal hypocrisies. The play unfolds on the night before he’s sent to live in a residential school, after an anonymous caller tells social services that his family can no longer cope. He spends most of the play quietly watching Finding Nemo on an ipad, or lining up Mr Kipling fondant fancies on the carpet, while the three adults in his life – his mum, his dad, and his carer – air every ‘unsayable’ thought and feeling that he’s sparked in them. He’s at the front of the stage, but still in the background.
Parts of the dialogue are genuinely horrific: like the moment where Gary, the carer, muses aloud that disabled people are animals reincarnated as humans by mistake (he sees Laurence as a puppy). Or where stay-at-home Dad Martin (Simon Lipkin) discusses grotesque sex acts in front of his son (bukkake and Snow White are involved) – stoned and past caring whether his words are having an impact on this seemingly-not-listening son.
These moments act as satire of the mindlessly ableist languages and behaviours people slip into, and they’re partly challenged within the play’s text. But they’re not challenged by a disabled person – they’re challenged by members of this family, who’ve already shown themselves to be all too flawed. Laurence is an endearing figure, and one that emerges vividly; Siân Kidd’s puppet, operated by puppeteer Hugh Purves, allows for more subtle characterisation than the press images suggest, with minutely observed patterns of movement and gentle yelps of excitement or fear. But although he’s clearly responsive to his parents’ actions, and to the tense atmosphere their amped-to-the-max arguments produce, his subjective experience still isn’t made visible. He’s the silent fourth point, sitting outside a triangle of mutual reinforcement.
Southwark Playhouse’s statement is revealing: it says that “the play is primarily about the carers and parents of a severely disabled autistic child”. On the face of it, that’s fine. A playwright is, and should be, able to set the parameters of their work. And what All in a Row undoubtedly does do is show how love and desperation can co-exist. It’s a work made by an author who has 10 years of experience working with autistic people, and has developed a deep level of compassion for their families and the people that work with them. It shows some of the difficulties of caring for a disabled child in a rule-bound system, and the painful intersection between the private world of a family and the public world of the social work and policing systems.
Laurence’s parents restrain him from biting in ways that leave bruises. In their home, that has become normal. But in this play’s vividly portrayed double bind, people from outside their home are horrified, both by Laurence’s behaviour when he seems to pose a risk to their children, and by the bruises on his body that come with restraining him. Some of these holds are demonstrated on stage, in a way that asks you, as an audience member, to silently decide whether you think they’re right. A flailing, yelling puppet-child is turned into a limp, placid, seemingly content one – the ends seem to justify the means. But seeing these moments of violence portrayed using a puppet sort of mutes their impact: puppets aren’t as fragile as humans. And there’s also no room to understand how it feels to be that 11-year-old, restrained by two fully grown men. I wanted to know.
Representing the perspective of a non-verbal autistic child is hard. Harder than representing that of a couple whose marriage is imploding under unbearable pressure (it sometimes feels like that’s what about half of all theatre’s about). Sitting in All in a Row, I felt that this room and this performance didn’t offer enough weight to that perspective, or make its autistic character central enough. One of the key slogans of the disability rights movement is ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’, and it’s one that’s realised by disabled-led theatre companies like Graeae, Access All Areas, Hijinx, and Blink. And their work has paved the way for venues like Bush Theatre to stage new writing in inclusive ways: last year, its staging of Ben Weatherill’s play Jellyfish cast Nicky Priest, an actor with Asperger’s Syndrome, to play a character with autism, alongside Sarah Gordy, an actor who has Down’s Syndrome.
The ethos of ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ isn’t always straightforward: there are challenges in making work that can be understood at different levels by audience members with different abilities, and tensions as to whose experience and whose access needs are prioritised. Frozen Light’s The Isle of Brimsker is rare for focusing on audience members with profound and multiple learning disabilities. It interweaves communication of different kinds: the world of a lonely lighthouse keeper is evoked using spoken word and music, but also through delicate curtains of metallic plastic, through one-on-one attention from performers, from invitations to look inside intricate boxes, feel pebbles, or to experience tiny shavings of ice falling onto your skin. It’s unlikely to get as much media attention as All in a Row, because it’s aimed at people who sit outside of the mainstream conversation around theatre.
All in a Row doesn’t use any strategies to integrate neurodiverse or disabled audience members. Laurence Shaun May’s valuable response to All in a Row criticises the production for only having one relaxed performance, which makes it inaccessible to many autistic audience members – whether or not they’re likely to find its content alienating or upsetting, they’re closed off from having an opinion in the first place. His write-up is part of a hearteningly full, well-argued response to the show from people who are neurodivergent, autistic, or have direct experience of autism. These writers are filling in the perspectives that are missing from the play. Jess Thom’s piece is especially helpful for its summary of the discussion with the show’s makers, including an ‘easy read’ version which opens up the conversation to people who’d otherwise be shut out from it.
By excluding the people you’re talking about from the room, you create a space where ableist views can be aired unchallenged. All in a Row is deliberately warts-and-all. It gives oxygen to the things that you’re not ‘allowed’ to say about living with disabled children: the uncomfortable parts about toilet-training or dealing with violent behaviour or the frustration that under-supported, struggling carers feel. It might be very cathartic for people who are struggling to care for disabled people (if they’re not offended by how utterly dysfunctional its central couple are). But it involuntarily ends up playing into and reinforcing old, old narratives: that having an autistic child is life-destroying, that a parental bond with a autistic child is somehow less deep or valid, that the difficulties of living with disabled children are primarily caused by the child, not by inadequate support systems. These are ideas which regularly pop up in theatre made without disabled collaborators. In No Kids, playing at the BAC, which follows a gay couple deciding whether or not to adopt, they discuss the possibility of having a disabled child as though it’s the worst possible eventuality, a tragedy to be feared.
It’s a sense reinforced by All in a Row. The mood at the end of the play is one of relief, however problematised. Laurence goes to a residential school, and there’s the suggestion that this couple’s lives will be better, even though the husband’s behaviour has tipped from unhealthy into appalling (as well as continually undermining his wife’s career, he poos on her pillows, and blames it on his son). I couldn’t stop thinking about Laurence’s vulnerability, and the potential for him to suffer abuse without being able to report it, in a situation where his testimony isn’t visible or valued.
People make a lot of claims for theatre, but I think its most convincing one is that it builds empathy. It gives you an inside view of someone else’s experience, and it makes new perspectives and subjectivities visible. That process hasn’t fully happened onstage at Southwark Playhouse, but it has happened offstage. The outpouring of conversation on blogs and on social media shows the justified frustration of people who are spending their careers and free time making space for dialogue about autism, disability and representation in theatre, and aren’t being heard. The conversation around All in a Row is a challenge to its makers to listen.