They say all press is good press, the waters of which certainly have been tested by Southwark Playhouse’s latest feature All in a Row. With the central themes being around a non-verbal autistic child, it’s caused some controversy within the industry and the autistic community.
One thing is for certain, and that is that this play is an incredibly brave piece that has evoked thoughts about autism and how it is seen in society. Protesters have been upset by the information that has been made available to them, and I can understand this (as much as a neurotypical person can do.) For example, the first lines that are in the description are “Laurence likes Pizza. Laurence is about to go to school. Laurence thinks it’s okay to wee on Mummy’s pillow.” I can certainly see why this could cause some offence, as it seems to paint autistic people as ‘Other’ and presents autism as a choice. I also don’t think it’s accurate to autistic people in society, nor how Laurence is represented in the play. It is mentioned on many occasions that Laurence goes to the toilet on his mum’s pillow, but it’s clear that it’s not because he likes it, but more-so a coping mechanism of some sort, much like other stims such as rocking, hand flapping or repeating phrases. It is also worth addressing that there is only one relaxed performance offered, and only one post-show discussion, and these events don’t even coincide with each other which seems like a missed opportunity.
And now for the elephant in the room: the casting of the puppet. It’s a tough thing to debate, as there are definitely strong arguments on either side for the choices that have been made. I found at first that the greyish colour and emotionless face is quite unsettling and I imagine that if I were autistic and saw this image, I too would find this upsetting. I wish they would have changed the colour of the puppet, and also given Laurence the facilities to show more expressions in terms of human functions (blinking, opening his mouth perhaps, etc.), just to add some more humanistic qualities. The creative team have stated that they had decided to pick a puppet for the part due to the themes in the show which could be extremely triggering and potentially traumatic for an autistic person to have played repeatedly throughout the run, but if they are to represent Laurence as a puppet, then it would have been nice to have included more puppetry to balance this. It would have been a good way to bridge the gap of the debate if they had, for example, included a scene where we are seeing the world directly through Laurence’s eyes, where all the characters are played by puppets. If done in a tasteful and artistic way, this could have perhaps justified the casting of a puppet a little more and not have caused so much offence. It would also highlight how Laurence is a child who sees the world differently, and is seen ‘differently’ to the world. It is also important to remember that Hugh Purves as the puppeteer isn’t just a handler of a puppet- a stagnant object – but an actor who is using the puppet to bring a character to life; Purves makes some strong performance choices which help show Laurence as the person beyond the puppet, whether you agree with the casting choice or not.
But even with all of the drama from the protesters outside, the quality of the acting and tone of the writing cannot be ignored. Oates’ play focuses on the strained relationship of Laurence’s parents (played by Charlie Brooks and Simon Lipkin), as well as touching on issues that the systems put in place to ensure the “best care” from the government. What I really appreciate about the writing is its rawness; that we shouldn’t assume that any parents with autistic children are automatically perfect and have all of the answers on what is best, in this case whether they like to admit that to themselves or not. Lipkin as Martin in particular says a lot of things that would come across as extremely offensive if heard out of context, but this only shows how the play has shaped the characters as fully rounded in the way that their exhaustion has caused them to erode their filters. This, by no means, excuses his words or choices as a character at all, but reminds us that when pushed to a certain point, people can make bad decisions without thinking things through. Even Gary (Michael Fox), until a certain moment in the play which could be triggering, is shown as a kind and gentle person who is perfectly suited to help Laurence. He says something that is clearly not PC, and it brings us back to the reminder that at the end of the day, these people are humans and are not perfect. Brooks as Tamora gives a heart-breaking performance as a mother who is struggling to mentally cope with her withered relationship, stagnating career and heavily autistic son in terms of connections and communication. I failed to hold back tears in her last lines as she scrapes the bottom of the barrel to hold herself together to explain to Laurence what lies ahead in his future.
Paired with the fantastic performances of all four actors, this piece, albeit controversial, is very strong, extremely emotional and brilliantly memorable.
All in a Row is playing at The Southwark Playhouse until 9 March 2019. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website.