It’s not just TS Eliot’s Prufrock who measures his life out in spoons. For many disabled and chronically ill people, it’s a simple and effective way to plan how to use their limited energy reserves. They start the day with a number of spoons and every activity – no matter how small – uses them up. And once they are gone, it’s game over for the day.
In Bex Bowsher’s bleak drama Spoon Theory – the first in a double bill of new works at Live Theatre’s Elevator Festival – Belle finds her own life governed by this cutlery metaphor when she is left physically and mentally disabled after a car accident. One of her legs is amputated above the knee, she has bits of metal holding her together and she’s afflicted with the double whammy of depression and PTSD.
It’s not so much Belle’s disabilities that had me blinking back the tears, though, but the effect it has on her marriage. Bowsher presents a heartbreaking portrait of marital breakdown as husband Gabriel struggles to accept that Belle will never go back to being back to her old self no matter how long she has to recover. His frustration is palpable when his attempts to rouse her from her lethargy come to nothing. He doesn’t understand that a simple trip to visit his parents at the local garden centre will use up her entire daily spoon ration.
But what is most praiseworthy about Bowsher’s writing is her darkly comic and savage lampooning of a benefits system that is so broken it has become a national embarrassment. Belle’s experience of trying to claim Personal Independence Payment – better known as PIP – is similar to that seen in I, Daniel Blake. Like Ken Loach’s protagonist, she endures disinterested DWP staff, patronising healthcare professionals and lengthy user-unfriendly claims forms, all of which form part of a machine that’s seemingly designed to crush a claimant’s spirit and rob them of any remaining dignity.
Currently running at 45 minutes, Spoon Theory has lot of potential to expand into a full-length play and delve even deeper into the daily struggles of those who are afflicted by disability and illness, and then punished for having the temerity to be sick.
In the 1990s, notorious teen Anthony Kennedy terrorised the Byker Wall Estate in Newcastle with a one-man crime spree. The tabloids delighted in demonising him, nicknaming him Rat Boy because of his habit of hiding from the police in the ventilation shafts around the estate. Christina Berriman Dawson and Lee Mattinson’s Rat Boy takes a more sympathetic view of Kennedy, portraying him as more victim than villain. The play centres the search for Rat Boy, who has gone missing. But it’s not the police who are looking for him but his friends, and he’s not taken off because he’s been shoplifting but because he’s taken a kicking from some students.
As Rat Boy’s slow-witted mates Gash and Jam search for him around the estate, we are introduced to a host of colourful local characters, such as Regal, who sells illegal fags and gives away a free ferret with every 200 pack (played to full comic effect by Micky Cochrane). The search is interspersed with banging ’90s rave dance interludes – big fish, little fish, cardboard box – and flashbacks to Rat Boy’s past; his premature birth, him struggling to read, taking abuse from his father, then knocking his unconscious.
Berriman Dawson and Mattinson’s message is clear: Rat Boy was doomed from birth. It’s this knowledge that haunts his mother, who blames herself for not having the strength to leave his father earlier. Paula Penman gives a great performance as his mam, portraying her as brash Geordie matriarch who uses brisk humour to hide her pain.
Rat Boy is clearly owes a big debt to Shameless. Like Paul Abbott’s drama, it presents a dysfunctional yet close knit community, peopled with a cast tragi-comic characters, whose lives are sustained by state handouts, petty crime and cheap fags. It even borrows Frank Gallagher’s penchant for poetry with the residents of the Byker Wall frequently descending into expletive-laden rhyming couplets. But then, it’s only fitting that a play about a thief steals a few ideas.
Spoon Theory and Rat Boy are at Live Theatre, Newcastle, until March 17th. For more details, click here.