The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted
by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others
by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review
the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.
Without Constraints II
Graeae Theatre February 2021
Graeae, the theatre company of able-bodied and disabled artists, has always had a philosophy that might be expressed in the assertion that a disability may be something some people have but is not who they are. Graeae addresses the lockdown of theatres by commissioning a series of five short (c. 20 minute) online plays to reflect this view.
All are excellent – a couple even better than that – and make use of the developing new form of Zoom theatre to great effect.
With one partial exception, the plays are all two-handers built on supposed Skype/Zoom conversations between characters separated by distance. The fact that everyone involved, from playwrights to performers, is female is a nice bonus.
Two of the plays address the subject by pointedly ignoring it, If one or both of the characters (and the actor in the role) is disabled, that is simply not what the play is about.
In Rebekah Bowsher's 'Flowers For The Chateau' the two women played by Naomi Werthner and Julie Graham had a passionate romance years ago. Meeting again in middle age they discover that emotional scars remain but life has put them in a situation in which they must continue to meet but keep the past a secret, and so they resolve to just do it.
One of the two sisters in Jessica Lovett's 'Stuck With You' is deaf, as is the actress playing her. But as they carry on a conversation via picturephones they are too concerned with other things to even mention it.
Alexandra James and Sharon Duncan-Brewster make absolutely believable that shared grief for a dead third sister, shared frustration with their meddling mother and even the problem of an ill-fitting dress – that is to say, all the things any two sisters would be bothered by – loom larger in their consciousness.
The one exception to the Skype conversation format is Karen Featherstone's 'Good Day Bad Day', in which a double exposure allows Cherylee Houston to play two aspects of the same woman, sitting side by side in bed.
While the glum one just can't face another day of encountering able-bodied people with their intrusive curiosity or uninvited pity, the cheerier version reminds her that that is just part of the experience they've had every day of their lives and they know they can cope – and besides, they need to do some shopping, so let's get on with it.
A more darkly satiric view of the able-bodied world's view of the disabled drives the anger of Kellan Frankland's 'How Do You Make A Cup Of Tea?' Harriet Walter plays an bale-bodied actress cast as a disabled character, interviewing the disabled actress played by Mandy Colleran for character insights.
But her questions and reactions betray a mix of ignorance and assumptions that quickly turns from ridiculous to offensive. As the character frantically takes copious notes, all of them inaccurate, we watch her become almost literally buried under her own prejudices while the woman being interviewed wonders sardonically why they didn't just cast her in the role instead..
The strongest of the five pieces, thanks largely to passionate performances by Sharon D. Clarke and Saida Ahmed, is Leanna Benjamin's 'The Gift.' A mother separated by lockdown can only express her impotent frustration and pain at the news that her disabled daughter was raped.
It is the daughter who reminds them both that mother taught daughter through every day of her childhood to have the strength to deal with her disability, and that same strength and moral support will get her though this.
None of the five plays could even remotely be called preachy, but they all make their points through strong writing and sensitive playing. With a total running time of roughly 90 minutes, they are well worth dipping into or sitting straight through.
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