Feature: Guilt, Grief and Growing Up – Ella Carmen Greenhill and Adam Quayle

Photo by Lucas Smith

Inspired by real-life events, Ella Carmen Greenhill’s Plastic Figurines explores the relationship between two recently bereaved siblings. Following her mother’s untimely death, Rose leaves university and returns to her family home to spend time with her autistic younger brother, Michael. But while she sets out expecting to look after him, she soon discovers that she needs him as much as he needs her.

Produced by Box of Tricks as part of their New Tricks programme, Plastic Figurines begins its UK tour in Liverpool this month, with the company’s first relaxed performance set to take place in Ellesmere Port later in the run. Together with its director, Adam Quayle, Greenhill discussed damaging preconceptions and the power of shared emotions to bring us together.

“Mikey was initially inspired by my brother, but he definitely developed into a distinct character as I went along,” said Greenhill. “In real life, my mum also passed away, but me and my brother only share a dad, so that was more about exploring my own grief.”

To develop her characters, Greenhill sought out stories from family, friends and strangers, as well as researching the many forms autism can take.

“It was important for me not to try to give a definitive answer about what autism is or how people experience it,” said Greenhill. “There are so many misconceptions. Some ideas aren’t even necessarily wrong, they’re just not true for everyone. The quote I keep coming back to is that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

As well as equipping her to debunk popular myths, Greenhill also found that her research deepened her own understanding of the condition.

“It’s easy to say that it’s a spectrum and believe you understand that, but I don’t think I fully appreciated the scale of it before. Once you look into it, you start noticing little things about everyone, and you begin to question how we define autism and decide who has it.”

“It’s that meeting ground that I found most interesting,” said Quayle. “I think the play is really about exploring similarities, rather than differences.”

These similarities have allowed Greenhill to bring out lighter, humorous elements with a more universal reach: in many ways, Rose and Michael are just an ordinary brother and sister. They’ve also been useful for her in imagining Michael’s view of the world.

“I’m a very emotionally expressive person, but Mikey isn’t like that at all, so it’s been really interesting to look at things from his perspective,” she said. “The fun thing about writing Mikey has been that he has no idea how profound the things he says are. For example, there’s a moment when he says that if he could just text his mum, it would be fine. That actually came from something I’d thought about myself, and is something I think would resonate with anyone.”

One major source of tension between Mikey and his sister is his need to always be right.

“He’s not trying to be difficult or to make her feel stupid – he just has to make sure the facts are properly recognised,” said Greenhill. “So if Rose says something that is incorrect, or that he believes to be incorrect, it’s important for him to say so.”

Eventually though, Rose comes to learn that Mikey is a lot more independent than she had previously imagined.

“Rose starts out with an idea of what she needs to do for Mikey, but then we see her learning from him. They help each other,” said Greenhill. “There’s a line where she says something like, ‘He can do things for himself, but not today.’ And it is just not today, when something has happened to him that could have happened to anyone.”

As important as Mikey’s growth and development may be to the story, it is ultimately Rose’s journey that takes centre stage.

“We’re seeing things through her eyes, and a lot of it is about coming to terms with who you are,” said Quayle. “While she’s away, Rose misses out on Mikey’s formative years, and when she comes back, he’s about 17/18, so she has to get used to him not being a child any more.”

“So much of it is about her guilt,” Greenhill added. “At first she needs that, but then it becomes about letting go, in the same way that parents have to learn to let their children go as they get older. Rose feels something like that almost without realising it.”

Plastic Figurines tours UK theatres from 8 April – 16 May 2015, with a relaxed performance on 28 April. For more information, visit the Box of Tricks website.