A sparse stage is populated by nothing but a table stacked high with A3 placards, a British Sign Language interpreter and a vinyl deck. Otis Redding’s ‘I Love You More than Words Can Say’ begins to play. The interpreter signs the lyrics. The record begins to skip, which the interpreter masterfully demonstrates in a deft piece of creativity. The record is left skipping and crackling for the remaining 60 minutes, providing an apt metaphor for stammering.
Nye Russel-Thompson enters in pared back attire and proceeds to seemingly berate the audience with a certain four-word expletive. Repeatedly. To the point where it becomes funny, then not funny, then funny again. The tone is set; we’re going to laugh, but we’re also going to gain some insight into living with a stammer.
The piece follows the protagonist, aided by his trusty sidekick – that pile of pre-written placards – as he attempts to say Just a Few Words to someone important in his life. The placards speak for him when he can’t get the words out, offer advice and coping strategies and provide the perfect foil for Russel-Thompson’s anxious character.
His nervous energy, constant shuffling and struggling actually speak to the vulnerability of any performer putting themselves on a stage in front of a packed audience. They say that comedy is all about timing and the pauses in between sentences. But what if you have a stammer?
In fact, Russel-Thompson’s comic timing is spot on, but instead of delivering verbally he flashes the placards quickly to deliver punchlines, flinging them glibly or else holds them for ages to milk the laughs or create awkward silences. The use of repetition which is common in comedy is clever because it mimics the speech patterns of someone with a stammer. It’s a funny production for these reasons, though the punchlines themselves are sometimes a little obvious.
As audience we are privy to a very personal internal battle going on in the protagonist’s mind, the placards at times acting as an outside observer, at others as a different side to his personality. We can feel the anguish and frustration as he struggles to communicate. It has to be one of the most universally frustrating experiences when we are unable to communicate properly for whatever reason; whether because of a stammer, a language barrier or just a fundamental difference of opinion.
Russel-Thompson’s performance is informed by his own real-life experience of having a severe stammer, which he has apparently since managed to mitigate the worst effects of. Whilst it is largely a convincing performance, it at times feels a little overegged. The placards seem to agree with that analysis, at one point saying ‘You’re such an actor!’
If we relate to the frustration the protagonist feels organically we are literally forced to empathise with his embarrassment. The audience are roped in to helping sing the Ottis Reading song, at increasing speed, before halting on a certain three-word phrase. Repeatedly. Then we’re made to hold it as if we have a cork in our throats. It was a nice way of turning the tables on the audience, if not the subtlest.
As the piece moves on and the pile of placards dwindles, they take on a life of their own. Russel-Thompson seems to lose control of them. It raises some interesting questions about agency and losing the internal struggle against our gremlins. Whilst the device of the placards is inspired and original it does start to wear a little thin, despite the occasional deviation from the format. Indeed, the piece seemed to lose a little steam and drag towards the end, not helped by the ridiculously cramped and hot conditions in a small, sold-out room.
But Russel-Thompson deserves immense credit. For such a young performer in this early stage of his career, this is a seriously accomplished piece of theatre which raises both a laugh and an eyebrow.
This piece was produced in partnership with Disability Arts Online, a web-based journal for critique, discussion and promotion of work by disabled artists. Joe Turnbull is an arts journalist and Disability Arts Online’s Subeditor.