An examination of political labelling, Heather O’Shea’s Blue Fence tackles what it means to be considered disabled within the cultural sphere. When Claire (Flora Nicholson) is shortlisted to design a representative sculpture for the 2012 Olympics. the up-and-coming artist launches herself into the project, seeing it as an opportunity to make a statement about government funding. However, when she suffers an unexpected stroke she finds herself suddenly catapulted into the category of “disabled artist”. With her ability now being questioned, her cynicism quickly turns to frustration and panic. Whilst trying to breathe underneath the smothering of her friends and family, Claire is forced to consider how she is defined solely by her disability by many people, including those who fund her project.
Thomas Hunt and Antonia Kinlay share the rest of the characters – ranging from new squeeze and fellow artist Tom, to Claire’s protective brother Chris and his tactless fiancée Sophie. Kinlay and Hunt switch from one accent to another, but often more could be done physically to achieve clearer characterisation. The character of Benji lacks any real development, and with the dialogue doing more than enough to explain the strained relationship between Claire and her once loyal studio assistant, his character unfortunately becomes rather unnecessary. With an Irish lilt, Kinlay brings warmth to the character of Karen – managing to strike a comfortable tough-love/motherly-guardian balance, but overall the cast don’t quite convince me to invest fully in the characters they represent.
The Pleasance’s thrust studio space provides the perfect playground for director Francesca Seeley’s staging. The production uses a simple but constantly moving set consisting mainly of a rectangular platform and six moveable posts which, combined with the use of coloured strings to create temporary walls, define the ever-changing boundaries of the play’s different environments: the string walls form windows, hospital curtains and even Claire’s work of art itself. Scene changes are executed cleanly and efficiently by the actors, and the minimalistic style of Giulia Scrimieri works well, even if the shifts in scene are sometimes too frequent.
O’Shea’s concept is great: the piece tackles disability in a refreshing manner. With the encroaching Olympics a mere year away, an age-old political discussion is positioned within a relevant and highly accessible format. Claire’s struggle with her identity forces us to consider the shifting in political boundaries – who has a say in the categorising of “the disabled”? If the development and consistency of Seeley’s characters was on the par with the debate that Blue Fence has the potential to spark, the company would deserve more than a bronze medal for effort.
Blue Fence is playing at the Pleasance Theatre until 12 March. Tickets and information available on their website here.