This controversial play about the struggling parents of a severely autistic child is heartfelt and well-meaning
Alex Oates’s ‘All in a Row’ has proven impressively controversial for a small fringe production, thanks to the decision of the creative team to use a puppet to depict Laurence, a severely autistic 11-year-old boy.
I wonder if they’d do it again if they knew the brouhaha the release of rehearsal pictures featuring the puppet would create: there has been a massive online backlash, plus a physical protest on press night.
I didn’t feel uncomfortable about Siân Kidd‘s puppet, especially as the role of Laurence is as much physically acted by puppeteer Hugh Purves as by the model. And it’s common enough to have children played by puppets on stage. Still, the play could probably have been done perfectly well without physically representing Laurence, though I thought his sweet, non-verbal presence added something.
In fact, ‘All in a Row’ – isn't really about Laurence, more about his struggling parents Tamora (Charlie Brooks) and Martin (Simon Lipkin). Oates has more than ten years working with learning-disabled adults and children (including autistic ones), specialising in challenging behaviour. But I think any parent will recognise the strain children put on a relationship, even if the situation is less severe than the one depicted here.
Martin has become an embittered stoner, who bums around playing PlayStation all day while thinking increasingly bleak thoughts. Tamora is a successful-ish entrepreneur who can barely conceal her contempt for Martin. Laurence’s carer, Gary (Michael Fox), is the only genuinely likeable adult presence – his being there at least forces the couple into a truce of sorts. But tonight things are coming to a head: it is Gary’s last day, as Laurence is moving to a residential school tomorrow, apparently prompted by a complaint to police about bruises on his body.
Oates captures a fascinating and complicated dynamic, presumably heavily based on first-hand experience. Laurence’s parents love him, but his needs have shaped their life and tested their relationship beyond endurance. Gary enjoys his time with Laurence, but it’s not his life. And yet he appears to have acquired a role beyond the professional – part confidant, part punchbag, it feels very unhealthy.
It’s gripping and heartfelt and unfortunately a bit OTT: Tamora and Martin would surely not still be together, plus a ridiculous amount of stuff comes to a head that night, and the melodrama sometimes obscures the humanity. Still, that is ultimately what it comes down to – the puppet is just a distraction from this sincere story about two damaged people, terrified of saying goodbye to their little boy.
By: Andrzej Lukowski
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All in a Row is a powerful and deeply affecting story about the realities of life with a severely autistic person. I think the play should be commended for its raw and personal approach to the topic. I also think that the fantastic acting of Charlie Brooks and the incredibly informed work of the puppeteer should be noted. Having a severely autistic brother myself, I am upset by the responses of some people who find the use of the puppet as the role of Laurence 'dehumanising'. For me, as somebody who has lived around severe autism for my entire life, the puppet, other than being slightly strange looking, was perfect for the role in the sense that it showed how one cannot assume to understanding the workings of some nonverbal autistic peoples' minds. The play does not intend to know what the severely autistic experience is like, it only claims to imagine it, as that is all that can be done for those who, unfortunately, cannot say how they feel. The puppet, as an artistic choice, was respectful in my opinion; to get an adult to act as though they were severely autistic would have been in extremely bad taste. Good job!