Let’s consider the main controversy first. The use of a puppet to portray a disabled non-verbal autistic boy.
The writer notes: “...Laurence is one autistic character with an extremely profound learning disability and set of behaviours including violence. He is by no means intended to be a representative of the whole autistic spectrum and the people within it. I’m a massive supporter of inclusivity in art I’m currently working on three different projects that feature learning disabled performers all playing characters with the same disability as their own. I believe people with learning disabilities should be given the chance to tell their own stories and the stories of others whatever appropriate.
Laurence is a character with the level of disability that would make it impossible for him to appear in the play especially a play like this one. The task of portraying a non-verbal 11-year-old with a very challenging behaviour is something I decided to do through puppetry. This has proved to be a controversial decision and I am saddened that some people have taken offence.
Laurence lacks agency in his own future. His fate is decided for him by neurotypical people and in many ways he has manipulated by the system he is within. This is one factor that informs the choice of puppetry But not the primary one.
I’ve always loved puppetry the way talented artist can observe life and distil it into an essence that captures the heart of a human being can often be breathtaking and illuminating ….different materials and practices all heavily influenced by two years of research and development and years in the field autism all came together to build Lawrence. During this process we included autistic people and parents of people with a similar level of autism to Lawrence and they all felt that the puppet was effective. We also have two autistic members of the team directly responsible for the characterisation of Lawrence….”
On balance, from an artistic point of view the puppet turns out to be unnecessary, in my opinion.
The puppeteer actor could have played Laurence without a puppet (and his movement was a highlight of his performance although I wasn’t completely convinced at all times). His actor’s body and physical portrayal were a good enough representation and the less convincing moments were typically with the puppet, for instance, when the puppet hands were picking up pieces and placing them not with the actor and his movement. The grey colour of the puppet was not a cohesive choice given the character of Laurence and given the colourful nature of the string design and lighting. (I liked the lighting design and colour squares design a lot and it referenced to my mind the shapes and patterning use of Laurence in a clever way).
One strength of representational acting is that you don’t have to be the character you are acting. Actors are not animals in Animal Farm, they are portraying. While a puppet can portray, as can an actor, in this case the connotations of the lack of humanity within a puppet are too strong.
Two years of R&D with a puppet maker and some focus groups can’t overcome this. (And why the inhuman grey??)
Unfortunately, we have so little narrative plenitude of stories portraying disability that a single potentially misguided artistic choice throws the production into such a storm.
Mainstream shows make misguided artistic choices all the time and that’s somewhat OK.
The pressure is magnified dealing with stories of people who don’t see themselves on stage often.
In that sense, this drama is important as a story to be told and the difficulties of balancing personal and family wants and needs with the best care and wants and needs of disabled children.
The first long monologue by the father is a description of a difficult moment where Laurence attempts to bite a 8 year old girl. That this is “told” not “shown” is notable especially as the writer indicates in his notes the importance of showing Laurence (as a puppet). The end of the monologue also reveals a secret which the audience is then aware of for most of the play, and which the mother only learns about at the end.
To me, this secret and the secret about who calls social services are well telegraphed from early in the play. I think dramatically the father’s secret should have been withheld longer from the audience. We only learn who made the call at the climax of the play, but it was of limited surprise to me. Perhaps others didn’t see it, I’d be interested to know. (Other reviews seem to also view these “twists” as non-events).
Moving on from the dramaturgical structure and early monologues, the drama unfolds in a fairly standard melodrama fashion over the night before Laurence is moving to a residential care home, triggered by an anonymous call to social services. The knives have been out between the parents for some years it seems and they re-hash their old wounds in a raw if sometime overblown manner.
That they both loved Laurence, I was of no doubt. (But an over fondness for ruffling the puppet’s hair was inauthentic to me; the foot rubbing being closer to the mark - note also the foot rubbing was on the actor’s actual feet as there was no bottom half of the puppet)
The carer character was the most sympathetic apart from a strange flight of fancy from the character as to a notion that disabled people might be reincarnated animals - this didn’t seem in keeping with what we knew of the carer to me. I’m not surprised the writer was a carer himself, so sympathetically was the character written.
The father (Martin) was not particularly sympathetic. His anger and aggression were perhaps understandable although after 11 years or so, the portrayal of his handling of Laurence’s behaviour (eg when asking for more pizza, and then cake) was a little off. Still, the mother accuses him of mostly playing Xbox and by implication wasting his life. It was a little unclear how much caring he was doing (Laurence was also going to a school with 2-to-1 support). That the father wanted Laurence to stay at home was clear, whether this was the right decision by Laurence was less clear.
The mother (Tam) was more sympathetic than Martin but with many flaws and had a wider range of characterisation to play with, although again the feelings of being undesired and the need to be loved were well telegraphed - that it made the carer seem clueless that he didn’t see a potential clumsy pass coming at him. The anguish and guilt of what it means to be a good mother to want the best for your child, when the best thing might not be yourself, was well articulated. Charlie Brooks, playing Tam, had some fine character moments particularly in her quieter moments rather than the arguments.
But both parents had few redeeming features and so at their core didn’t quite feel authentically complete to me.
I think the phrase that many might pick upon would be:
“You can love someone and wonder what it would be like if they were someone else. That’s OK.” (spoken somewhat aphoristically)
But, I think the theme I pick up on is
Wishing the best for someone you love, might mean letting them go, might be supporting them in reaching their potential and their dreams.
If Martin truly supported Tam in her venture business… and made a success of her
If Tam could love Martin for who he was, not for who she wished him to be
If a young couple could grow together…
If Tam and Martin could put Laurence’s needs before their own… which ultimately they do
And which ultimately parents round the world do every day for the children they love.
Points to the writer for telling a story, not often told and bringing disability to the stage. Points to Southwark and the AD for staging the play. That the creative decision on the use of the puppet has gone down badly with many is unfortunate as we need more of these stories. Not less.
Read a positive Guardian review (MIriam Gillinson) here: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/feb/19/all-in-a-row-review-autistic-child-puppet-drama-southwark-playhouse-london
A critical review here: https://britishtheatre.com/review-all-in-a-row-southwark-playhouse/
See some real footage of a Japanese non-verbal (But can communicate) boy author of Reasons I Jump: here
and some Lessons I learned from Autism here: