Jess Thom has Tourette’s syndrome. It manifests through involuntary vocal tics – particularly the words ‘biscuit’, ‘cats’, ‘hedgehog’ and ‘Aladdin’ – and through uncontrollable movements like hitting herself repeatedly in the chest or forehead, forcing her to use a wheelchair and making her body, in her word, ‘wiggly’.
Sometimes it’s bizarre, evocative strings of words (Aladdin taking out a mortgage, liquid sheep) and sometimes it’s an obsession with the brilliantly banal (Basingstoke and Peterborough, Anneka Rice and Norma Major). Aided by her assistant Chopin (Jess Mabel Jones), Thom takes us on a guided tour through the bizarreness of Biscuit Land. There are songs and games, as well as stories of Thom’s experience of Tourette’s. Behind her is an assortment of bespoke props, incarnations of some of the strange word combinations Thom’s mind has created: four ducks dressed as pterodactyls, a loaf of Steve.
Thom encourages the audience to laugh when her tics are funny, and her neurology can be inventive in hilarious, obscene and gruesome ways, but the humour more often than not comes from the reactions by Thom and Chopin. Chopin’s deadpan literalism in particular is the perfect counterpart to Thom’s unbridled whimsy. She responds in a surprised or quizzical way to what emerges from Thom’s mouth. It’s cheerful chaos throughout. Where do the tics end and the script begin?
At one point Thom is talking to a puppet dolphin. Blindsided by a tic outburst and veering off script, she then heads back on track and tells the dolphin that what she said in the outburst wasn’t relevant. Except the show manages to be completely relevant. Not only is it strangely prescient about the whole pig getting his chops round Cameron’s chap and the ham-fisted way his PR team has dealt with it (the final song is about fucking animals in the face and yet this show’s been around for over a year – Tourette’s seems to have prophetic properties); it’s also a massive fuck you to Cumberphone and that steaming arse-juice that calls itself ‘The Theatre Charter’. Thom’s presence in any room, at any performance, electrifies the place.
It makes a fundamental point about theatre right now. If people can be so precious about silence and good behaviour that they’ll gladly exclude others from theatre, what’s the point? We should be ashamed to foster a culture that allows that. Thom has made a show that is both deeply personal, and about more than just her. It’s hugely uplifting and entertaining, it’s educational and it’s a question for audiences: what are the rules of experiencing theatre that we take for granted, and why do they exist?
Tourette’s, Tics and The Seat of Creativity: The Exeunt interview with Jess Thom