Reviews Edinburgh Published 9 August 2013

If These Spasms Could Speak

Pleasance Courtyard ⋄ 31st July - 26th August 2013

Body politics.

Alice Saville

A performer crawls up onto the stage, but he’s not infantilised or vulnerable. Robert Softley was using this same crawling motion to climb the four steps into the bar that refused entry to him and his partner; the police were called, and he’s now taking legal action.

His one man show is a powerful look at his own experiences of disability, mixed with stories he’s collected into a touching, funny hour that still has the guts to challenge its audience. As part of a shockingly tiny minority of accessible shows,  the production offers downloadable audio description, BSL interpretation, and the script on a handheld device – steps that feel like respect for the audience on a basic level. There’s the same care in Robert’s opening; he addresses the potential problem of his speech impediments, asking people to let him know if they can’t hear him properly – though it’s hard to imagine people being willing to butt in and break the flow of his story. Instead, the act of leaning in to catch everything he says adds an intensity of focus, an intimacy to his chatty, conspiratorial style of performance.

Struggling to catch some bits drew my attention to how differently the same show is received by each  audience member, to the fact that it’s impossible to impose one single ideal – preferably with spider-sensitivity, stillness and focus – onto the chaotic mass of people that straggles through the Fringe.

The stories themselves are all moments where physical differences make themselves felt, whether hilariously, awkwardly, proudly, or with a quiet, unignored sadness. Some of the piece’s strongest moments look at the idea of shared ownership of the disabled body; being in hospital can feel like being an unreliable, human cog slotted uncomfortably into a gleaming machine, being bumped this way and that.

In one of Robert’s narratives, this sense is amplified to become a violation, as a disabled boy visiting his asthmatic brother is ordered to strip in full view of the ward – the common property of a passing doctor as he “must be somebody’s patient.” Robert’s use of audience members to remove his clothes is both pragmatic, and a framing comment on the story; his control over their physical intrusion becomes empowering. As the piece progresses, the stories of the awkwardnesses of physical dependence on others are interspersed with moments of table-turning, risk-taking triumph.

Robert quips early on “I’m not going to educate you on disability – that kind of training would cost £4,000.” But although he’s never dour or didactic, he does seem to aim for a kind of comprehensiveness. The stories skip between love, parenting, childhood, hospitals, aging – each of which could be worth an hour’s consideration in its own right.

Finding a tighter strand than the broad theme of the disabled body could make for a bit more structure, and a bit more interplay between voices that don’t always speak to each other. Still, the jumbled-together stories are tightly written enough to compel, even without a strong line to follow. Robert finds and exploits every milligram of humour and humanity in his sources. The force of his personality and carefully observed physicality makes him completely convincing even as he draws attention to the phantom pair of breasts, or a non-existent wheelchair. We’re thinking, hard, about the body, but the physical differences in front of our eyes are gone.


Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

If These Spasms Could Speak Show Info

Cast includes Robert Softley




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