Sophie Adnitt reviews Alex Oates' play All In A Row now playing at Southwark Playhouse, London.
All in a Row
18 February 2019
I’ve never gone to a press night with a protest taking place outside, but there’s a first time for everything I suppose. The cause of the protest is All in a Row, currently playing in Southwark Playhouse’s Large – more specifically, the cause is the staggeringly misguided, not to mention bizarre, decision to portray the character of a severely autistic boy with… a puppet. A puppet with grey skin. For some reason.
From its hideously unsympathetic characters to its unfortunate subtext, All in a Row makes for very uncomfortable and unpleasant viewing. Martin (Simon Lipkin) and Tamora (Charlie Brooks) are preparing to spend one final evening with their young son Laurence (puppeteer Hugh Purves). Laurence is autistic, non-verbal and sometimes violent, and someone has noticed bruises on the boy and called in social services. Tomorrow Laurence will move to a specialist centre 200 miles away – a bindered visual story entitled ‘Laurence is moving’ is already on set as the audience enter. Laurence’s carer Gary (Michael Fox) is present too and seems to be the only person there capable of calming Laurence down when he becomes distressed. Meanwhile, Martin and Tamora are sniping at each other and Martin is inexplicably playing cruel tricks on his wife and blaming them on his (unable to defend himself) son.
Martin is a foul character, but to be honest, Tamora is not much better, and after 90 minutes with these despicable people it appears that they deserve each other. Despite their situation and the challenges of caring for Laurence, it is very difficult indeed to feel a shred of sympathy for either of them and despite the frequent insistence that they do indeed love their son, I never believed it. Laurence is clearly considered a burden and a nuisance to them and the occasional implication that his mother thinks he needs to be ‘cured’ of his autism is horrible.
Sian Kidd’s Laurence puppet crosses fully into the uncanny valley with grey (I’m still at a loss as to why grey was the colour of choice) skin and an unsettling fixed expression. Purves’ legs serve as Laurence’s legs, with Laurence’s torso apparently growing out of Purves’ stomach. The puppetry is an interesting technique, but it’s so strange looking that it often detracts from the story. The moments of violence, notably Laurence being restrained, and the reason claimed by the production team for the puppet usage, could so easily be carried with a human performer – a capable fight director and calm, thorough rehearsal would achieve the same effect. The fact that Purves stays totally connected to the puppet during the violent scenes makes this excuse seem all the more feeble.
The cast does their best with what’s here. Simon Lipkin has proven his talent for humour many times before and continues to do so here, and Michael Fox as Gary has an easy charm. Hugh Purves is obviously a talented puppeteer but is overshadowed by controversy.
Writer Alex Oates has based this play on his own experience working with learning disabled adults and children and I don’t doubt that much of the play is based on real events, but the text seems underdeveloped. The majority of the dialogue is very basic, the direction resorts to shouting to create tension and the plot feels like drama by numbers – the ‘twists’ never surprise. The characters are messy and human, but it’s almost impossible to root for them. Oates can write decent dialogue and clearly has a knack for slice of life humour, it’s true, but his narrative structure lacks the ebb and flows needed to keep an audience gripped. Still, all potential is undeniably drowned out by poor choices.
Yes, autistic narratives and neurodivergent narratives need to be told on high profile stages – but not like this, a discredit to autistic people and their families. There are interesting ideas buried at the core of this play, but they are smothered by layer upon layer of ill-advised decisions (the puppet one of many), the kind where you have to wonder – did nobody at any part of the process object to any of this?
When the National Autistic Society publicly states that it cannot support your production, that’s got to be some kind of hint that changes should be made. The apparent refusal to is endlessly frustrating. This could have been a great opportunity to open up the conversation, but it’s been squandered in favour of insisting on using a device that should have been scrapped at the first read through.
“Sounds really offensive doesn’t it?” Gary mutters sheepishly after one immensely poorly thought out comment regarding Laurence.
“Yeah,” Martin replies “pretty much.”
Yeah. Pretty much.