The lives and emotions of those on the autism spectrum is a recurring theme in popular culture, with varying results as far as empathy and acceptance is concerned. As far back as the ‘80s, Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man presented us with the image of the number crunching idiot savant, an image that, however damaging, has stuck. More recently, The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper plays the compulsions and social difficulties often associated with autism-spectrum disorders for laughs, and Cumberbatch’s Sherlock heralds them as a near-superpower. This path is a well-trodden one in British theatre too, in part thanks to the success of Simon Stephen’s adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.
With all this background noise in mind, Plastic Figurines is a welcome addition to the conversation. The two hander explores the relationship between siblings Mikey and Rose after their mother passes away. In the wake of her death, Rose has sacrificed a life in Edinburgh to pick up the pieces and care for her brother, while he attempts to work through his grief in ways that range from the typical: getting mixed up in the wrong crowd and rejecting authority, to the less accessible: insisting on playing Nintendo on silent throughout his mother’s funeral.
The play approaches its characters and their situation with tenderness, empathy and patience. Rose and Mikey are that rare thing, hot blooded, fully fledged, messy characters, as strong as they are weak, loaded with contradictions but altogether real. Jamie Samuel’s performance gets right to the meat of the thing, and his breakdowns are both a triumph and a challenge to witness. Remmie Milner’s Rose is gutsy but struggling against the currents of responsibility she finds herself dragged under, and acts as a great anchor to Samuel.
The play is told out of sequence, and from time to time the scenes bump into one another and obscure the audience’s understanding. Simple questions of where or when we are now get in the way of the tender relationship that’s blossoming in front of us. This isn’t helped by the inflexible set, an overbearing choice for a play so fluid and mercurial in structure. In Adam Quayle’s production, the smell of disinfectant and the weight of mortality hangs over Mikey and Rose, but at the expense of clarity and freedom. Plastic Figurines is about so much more than the death of a parent, it’s about surviving, making sacrifices and trying to find a common language across a gulf of understanding.
In short, Plastic Figurines is a vital story relevant for any family forced to deal with grief, disability, hardship or heartbreak – which means just about every family, really. Greenhill finds great insight in the mundane practicalities of suffering and tragedy, in the sandwiches after a funeral, the train timetables and the plastic figurines that Mikey cares so much for. At one point I found myself mapping out the same practicalities in my own family, were tragedy to strike. There’s a unique ache and therapy that comes with this kind of methodical thinking, and Greenhill dramatises it with aplomb here. It’s a shame that the production, much like Rose, can often feel stuck – pinned down by necessity and circumstance, and unable to reach its full potential.
Plastic Figurines is on at the New Diorama until 22nd October 2016. Click here for more details.