Tweetingit: The story of a couple trying to cope with an autistic child is not easy viewing. Amid the negative publicity and controversy of this show you will discover a bravely written, brilliantly acted piece of modern theatre which needs to be seen.
Playwright Alex Oates seemingly doesn’t believe in doing things the easy way. First, he chooses autism as the subject matter for a play, then decides to represent an autistic child in the form of a puppet which has stirred up quite a storm of protest.
Many feel the play dehumanises autism by using a puppet to portray a non-verbal boy and the National Autistic Society were unable to support the play due to its use of puppetry. When I arrived at the Southwark Playhouse protesters were handing out leaflets. A petition has been signed by over 12,000 people, and was heavily critical of the venue in its failure to provide more autism/accessible friendly shows.
I’m not an expert in the subject, nor do I have a child with the condition. My views may have been different if I had first-hand experience of autism so I can only provide my views in that light. I approached the play with an open mind and was determined not to pre-judge it.
All in a row tells the story of Laurence (Hugh Purves) a 11-year-old, non-verbal, autistic boy. Mum Tamora (Charlie Brooks) is a high-flying businesswoman, while stay at home dad, Martin (Simon Lipkin) and a carer, Gary, (Michael Fox) share daily care of Laurence. Their marriage is falling apart, they’re struggling to cope. The story picks up on the eve of his departure to a residential school after social services have intervened and recriminations are starting to fly.
Tamora and Martin are trying to get through the day and do their best for a son they love dearly. As an audience member, you feel for the couple, working out how to do what is best for their son, even if some around them see it as wrong. Brooks and Lipkin play their parts beautifully throughout and should be recognised for pushing through and doing a great job while protests, petitions and posts on Twitter are aimed at them.
The sharply written script can be achingly sad and then raucously funny with some laugh out loud moments. This also may cause offence but humour can sustain us in our darkest moments and, as we know juxtaposing humour with heartache is always a powerful tool in any media.
Regarding the puppetry, whilst Hugh Purves is an excellent puppeteer, I found it difficult to mentally separate him from the puppet due to the way in which he puppet was designed. The scenes featuring Laurence work, up to a point, but all eyes are on Charlie Brooks, Simon Lipkin and Michael Fox who were, as I mentioned, superb in their respective roles.
Puppets can be viewed as dehumanising by their very nature, whether they portray an autistic child or a laughing policeman. Perhaps this is the real issue as we associate puppets with levity and not serious issues. It may therefore have the effect of trivialising the condition which surely wasn’t the intention. But in fact, the focus of this production lands squarely on the parents and carer and the situation they find themselves in – not the child, but on the difficulties and heartache felt by parents having to make difficult decisions and cope with difficult situations. One might question whether the puppet was even needed? Why couldn’t Laurence have been confined to the script as an off-stage character? But would this have halted the complaints? I am not sure.
Considering the broad spectrum of autism, and the wide range of effects it can have upon a person, Oakes could not possibly please everyone nor explain what autism is to all people; this could only cover one tiny aspect of it, and that really was the story of the parents. Actually, the fact that Laurence’s views could not be taken into consideration may even have been a sadder point of the show – the fact that he was unable to convey his feelings and so he could not be considered. This is obviously not the case for all non-verbal autistic people, but it is in this story.
It was certainly a bold move on the playwright’s part but some adverse reaction was perhaps inevitable. However, should the play be stripped of all credit because it causes offence in some quarters? The views of experts, parents and carers must be respected, but we should also be free to draw our own conclusions, particularly since this is not a play put together by someone who is making assumptions; Oates has worked with autistic children and adults for more than a decade and so has a great deal of insight into the subject.
The entire house was on its feet as the curtain fell. This was a powerful and emotive show, one which needs to be seen before it can truly be judged. Having seen this play I’ve learnt more about autism in 24 hours than I have in the last 10 years.
Author: Alex Oates
Director: Dominic Shaw
Producers: Paul Vides Productions/Evelyn James Productions/United Theatrical
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Booking Link: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/all-in-a-row/
Booking Until: 9 March 2019