Two children’s TV presenters bound onto the set – a slalom of ramps decorated with primary coloured paint splatters. They’re here to tell us the story of Little Miss Burden, leafing through a picture book to point out the red door of the house she grew up in with her Mum and sisters in Hackney. The spoof Little Miss book is laced with satire; we’re told Little Miss Burden ‘worked as the spokesperson for every disabled person in the whole entire universe’.
The show veers in a new direction as Little Miss (Saida Ahmed) enters in her electric wheelchair. ‘You didn’t think we’d tell her story without her, did you?’, Big Sis (Michelle Tiwo) and Little Sis (Ani Nelson) chorus, a pointed glance at all the mainstream media representations that fail to employ, or even consult people with disabilities before depicting them. ‘In this pocket of time and space,’ Ahmed declares, ‘we trust people to tell their own stories’; the picture book is put away to be replaced by a subtler and more personal narrative.
This is Little Miss’s coming of age story, starting with her birth and taking in events that include starting school, getting her period, and gradually realising that her ‘condition’ will never go away, despite her mum’s prayers and doctors’ interventions. When she is 13, Little Miss is officially diagnosed with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy (LGMD for short), a progressive condition that causes weakness in the muscles of her legs and makes it difficult for her to walk. Once named, LGMD takes on more power, manifesting as a disembodied voice with attitude that wants to control Little Miss’s life.
Matilda Ibini’s writing skilfully combines wit with emotional depth and honesty. Much of the humour is born out of frustration or as a defence from pain. Again and again officials, from teachers to doctors to physiotherapists, instruct Little Miss to try harder to be less of a burden on her mum. At the church she attends, the pastor prays for her to be healed to demonstrate the power of god. It is easy to see how Little Miss, surrounded by these narratives, is ground down by them and starts to believe they are true. There is a particularly affecting moment when Little Miss finally confronts her mother and tells her that her constant insistence that she will get ‘better’ makes her feel broken and incomplete. Ibini questions and resists such a redemptive narrative arc of ‘recovery’, although there is plenty of hope and irreverence.
Debbie Hannan’s production brings out the joy in Ibini’s script, sustained by the warmth of the relationships between the sisters and their mum. Together, the sisters make up a girl band even better than the Spice Girls, riffing with each other to tell Little Miss’s story. Saida Ahmed holds everything together with the directness of her performance and some very good hard stares. Bursting with energy, Ani Nelson and Michelle Tiwo are equally comfortable in their roles as Little Sis and Big Sis as they are flitting between minor characters. They perform some killer dance routines to 90s pop hits, choreographed by Phao May (what the sisters lack in polish, they make up for in enthusiasm).
The script is packed with 90s cultural reference points, from music to video games to Sailor Moon. Although the plethora of styles adopted by the play could prove overwhelming, Hannan draws them all together with clarity, supported by the bold, primary-coloured aesthetic of Helen Hebert’s set and the video game blips of Benjamin Grant’s sound design.
At times, the episodic nature of the script makes it feel a little baggy, particularly just before the interval. Yet perhaps this is more of a sign of my impatience than the fault of the script. As Little Miss says at the beginning, ‘this is a laid back show’. Not just in the sense that all the performances are relaxed, but in the sense that now she has a platform, she will take the time that she needs to tell her story properly and the way she wants it. Little Miss Burden ends with an impassioned plea to fight for and defend the rights of people with disabilities. It is a reminder of the power of words, the power of support systems, and the necessity of activism.
Little Miss Burden is on at the Bunker Theatre till 21st December. More info here.