It’s a hard trick to pull off, mining a child’s eye view of an adult situation for pathos, and inadvertant humour. Lee Hall’s Spoonface Steinberg, the protagonist what started out as a 1997 Radio 4 play, is a doubly, triply naÃ¯ve narrator. Seven years old, autistic, cloistered away from the world by cancer, she tells her own story from a hospital ward.
There’s no The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time adventure here, though. The mystery she’s trying to understand is death, and her place in the world. Characters float through her unstructured narrative. Spoonface is a wryly meditative centre to channel everyone else’s constant tears and turmoil through. Her parents are academics, her father shacked up with a younger PhD student, her mother sunk in bitterness and vodka. She’s looked after by Mrs Spud, a salt of earth cleaner with a heart of gold and a nice line in platitudes. Dr Bernstein is better managed, the Jewish doctor who helps her makes sense of her situation through the deaths of opera singers, and the Holocaust.
Lucy Hollis carries the narrative with a tightly wound energy, huddled in on herself, then bursting out, expansively, in wild, uncontrollable enthusiasm. This never feels like a radio play, thanks to direction by Max Barton that’s full of stylish touches, and unafraid to break up the narrative with nicely crafted images. Carmen Mueck’s design of layered curtains, opening and closing along smooth runners, conveys the sense of a hospital ward, where things are invisibly changed or whisked away. It also references Spoonface’s own theatricality, her obsession with opera, and her need to stage her own death, even if its not quite Tosca over the battlements. The primary coloured stage world is a compelling one, keeping our focus even as the story blurs and falters into pastel mawkishness.
There’s no reason why a child like Spoonface shouldn’t exist, but somehow she seems too good to be true – too palatable a picture both of autism and childhood illness. Surely serious illness would torment child into playing up, safe in the knowledge no one could bring themselves to dole out punishment? The situation Hall has created is such a specific one, such a horrible one, that it feels awful to criticise Spoonface’s relentless sunniness. Still, when she talks about connectedness, about sparks flying from everything, her naivety sounds somehow like the E-addled influence of the rave generation, like a rather fuzzy, 1990s specific way of looking at the more extreme ends of experience.
The cancer is so clear and so central that there’s no room for lesser ills, not really. Spoonface may have a walkman, and be happy talking about poo, but I’m not sure that’s enough to darken the halo that glows in the play’s more ecstatic moments. There’s plenty to love about this sparky piece, but I wish there was more of a mystery, more of a story – something to bring the scattered, starry eyed moments into alignment.