At the end of Still No Idea, Lisa Hammond says she didn’t want to make a show about disability, but admits that her new show with Rachael Spence is ‘exactly that’. Because in the ten years since No Idea, the first piece Hammond and Spence created together, ideas about and representation of people with disabilities has apparently changed. Yet with deft insight, charm, and beautiful storytelling, Still No Idea takes stock of the ways in which things have (or have not) improved for disabled people.
The show, created by Lee Simpson and Hammond and Spence, has an intentionally personal and casual atmosphere. Hammond and Spence speak directly to the audience and go through a series of episodes, some more connected than others. We’re in a rehearsal room, and the show is in process. Their relationship is steadfast and relaxed, with a strong and secure comic rhythm that delivers their infectious humour. They give off a deceptive happy-go-lucky facade with smiles that become increasingly detached from the subject matter.
After having done the same thing ten years ago, Hammond and Spence seek to find new stories for themselves. They ask the public to do two things: envisage what sort of characters Hammond and Space would play in a story, and then actually write out a story for them. In the process, they find an unsettling and depressing imbalance between how they are viewed as characters, and what stories they are given. Hammond gives a rousing and hilarious ‘Music Hall’ number called ‘Cheeky Face’, a description many of the public use to avoid or offset the fact that she is a wheelchair user. She is given the limelight, except when the actual story is written, Spence is instead thrust centre-stage in a torrid love romantic thriller, complete with an entertaining montage-sequence.
This imbalance remains the same in 2018, and Hammond and Spence rightfully take issue with how the veneer of visibility for disabled people is still not doing work to produce diverse complex stories for disabled actors. Hammond speaks about her time on a well-known television show (cough) and how although they offered her a permanent role, she was never given a main storyline during her four years on the show. Verbatim interviews from a group they call ‘the cripperatti’, successful disabled actors in the industry, conclude that it many ways the climate is worse than it was before.
The scope of the piece is extended beyond the entertainment industry, when Hammond and Spence make the blistering point that two-dimensional visibility or representation can actually be harmful. The small group of ‘successful’ disabled people are not only used as lip service or as inspiration porn, but also as an exploitative tool to conceal the systematic harms that are currently affecting those within the community. In what is the most effective and urgent episode of the piece, DWP statistics of disabled people ending their lives due to continued government cuts are projected on the back wall.
And that’s where Still No Idea becomes a profound critique on the problems of superficial representation and shallow storytelling. When a cheeky face is only ever allowed to be a cheeky face, it loses its ability to change, to show real humanity. When someone is cast as a static identity, they can only ever be instrumental to other people’s stories.
Still No Idea is on at the Royal Court until 17th November. More info here.