My Defence of “All in a Row”

I believe there is value for making your own mind up about things. From a young age this was something that was built into my thought process as my Mum taught me to think around subjects and to try and gain more perspective. While it is easy to accept what other people tell you about something that doesn’t mean that it is right, and so should should think about it yourself and get your own opinion.

This is something crucial for examining art, which “All in a Row” is an example of. Art is subjective and there is no absolutes in whether something is good or not. It is based on opinion. While some of the things that occur surrounding “All in a Row” (such as Laurence, the puppet) have negative effects that may not have been expected, that is not the be all and end all of the show. The show is made of many parts. In this review I want to give you an insight into what seeing the show was like and why, in my opinion, it is an ok small production that probably got more attention then it necessarily was meant to due to it’s casting decision.

Warning: I will mention spoilers in this article, don’t read it if you don’t want to see them.

I attended “All in a Row” at the Southwark Playhouse during a relaxed performance, which for starters was really well done and I was really appreciative of them organising this. This performance meant that anyone could stim/make noises/do whatever they needed to during the performance. We were allowed to leave and come back in if we wanted. The house lights were on during the entire show, which meant lighting changes weren’t as significant. They had lowered the volume of noises and sound effects. They gave us warning about two shouting scenes and supposedly had toned down some of the scenes (which, I am really glad about as they were getting really loud from my perspective in the performance we were in). They had thought about what they were doing in the design of this performance and I appreciated that. The people involved in the performance were kind to us and this was great (I also got to see some familiar faces, which made me happy. I didn’t talk to them due to feeling a bit socially awkward, but it was nice to see some people I know).

They started the show by introducing us to the characters. Martin (Simon Lipkin), the dad started. I felt that Simon put on a really good show and acted well in the role. One thing that can be said about the show is that it is sometimes a bit lazily written, going to tropes a bit too easily and not defining some of the characters in a completely realistic way due to that. Martin, unfortunately, was the target of a lot of this and came across as a bit insane. This to an extent is likely realistic with the amount of stress that he is under, but whether talking about his unfortunate feelings on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, his tendencies with excrement, or his paranoid feelings about other characters, he came across as a bit too unsympathetic. While I don’t completely agree with any of the character’s actions, which I think is a sign of good writing in this scenario, I find myself not being able to agree with him in a lot of ways. This doesn’t make sense seeing as though he should be a fairly sympathetic person for a few of his plot points.

The next person introduced was Laurence’s Mum, Tamora (Charlie Brookes). Charlie was brilliant during this performance providing a lot of varied tones in her role producing a great character. Tamora, unlike Martin, was as sympathetic as she was faulted. This character was fully realised in the writing and produced something very believable. She in herself was not too tropey. However, one of the things that her character does is, which took away realism. When you can hear one line of dialogue at the start of the play and know that a trope is going to happen at the end, then it is honestly more of a surprise to subvert the trope. But we’ll come back to that.

Following on was Laurence’s carer (I prefer term support worker, but that’s just from personal experience), Gary (Michael Fox). Michael played his role well being overall a nice guy if a little clueless…and by that a lot clueless. Gary was a good support worker…well, there would be something to say about his ability to follow regulations, but in the way of his immediate care for Laurence, he was lovely. He knew what he was doing, showing his expertise at moments. He was nice to the family, which is a good thing to be in this situation. Overall, he did he job well, albeit cluelessly.

Finally we have Laurence, the puppet, played by Hugh Purves. He is the most valued performer on that stage by far, and I really congratulate Hugh. He must have spent a lot of time learning an assortment of different movements that he performed well. The character did not come across as a stereotype, and unlike a review I had read earlier in the week, did not seem like the butt of every joke. What Laurence did was brilliant and I think that that is a real credit to Hugh’s work. However, they did not improve on the grey skin of the puppet, which was unfortunate and I still don’t understand why.

I put my thoughts about the puppet in my preliminary review. My thoughts now are still the same. Nothing that I saw in that show made me think that a human actor could not do that role. I think that there was some beauty in how the puppet worked and it was almost equivalent to how a human would be, apart from in their eyes. There is so much you can tell about a character by looking at their eyes. From my experience, I can see a lot of pain from an overload in someone by looking at their eyes. So when Laurence was having particular problems on stage, I wasn’t able to see anything there and that retracted from the performance a little. While I believe that they did well with what they had, I do believe that a human actor could have done it and I do believe that this took a job away from a potential autistic actor, which is just sad.

As I talked about before, the Alex Oates writing has some great bits, others that feel odd and are a little lazily put together. Some parts are done really well. You could tell that someone who has worked as a support worker at some point in their life has written on this, as certain parts ring very true to that. You do end up learning a lot about the person you are supporting and their interests (I luckily never had to recite passages of ‘Finding Nemo’, although wouldn’t that be a good film to do that with XD). Certain parts of the plot, mostly while talking about Laurence, feel well handled and respectful. Certain topics discussed by the parents felt extremely natural – one that particular resonated with things I have heard others say was about different ‘levels of disabled’ and (to paraphrase, this is essentially the theme of what they said) how it might be easier if ‘Laurence couldn’t move around as much like someone else’s child’. This, while we all know if not a good thing to feel (and just isn’t relevant to an extent), is a very human thing that I have heard others said, so I appreciate the realism in that.

Some parts just feel random and don’t mesh in well. These are either due to tropes (the main trope that irritated me was the mother kissing the support worker, which you could see a mile off. It was cliched and would have been better if it didn’t happen at all – that would have been a surprise that I would have enjoyed). There is a scene I’ve seen other people comment about with the support worker saying that Laurence could be a puppy in another life. That just felt random and felt like (to quote the show) a square peg being rammed into a round hole. It didn’t feel particularly natural.

On square pegs and round holes, this show gave a really bad opinion of a number of things that are not great. It makes residential services sound like hell. It makes psychiatrists sound like people who just want to drug you up, which isn’t necessarily true. It paints social services as bad (but doesn’t most show?). Also it ignored CQC in their role for safeguarding organisations (as an audience member kindly noted during the show, which I appreciated).

As a support worker, I worked in a residential service. We provided a high standard of care to everyone we worked with. Yes we weren’t going to do anything that we weren’t trained to do/was not ethical (ex. restraint in most cases), but that just meant that we found another way that we could support the person and I feel we did a good job. This show paints residential services as, at their best useless, at their worst abusive. While abuse can occur in residential services, they do not occur in all of them. It made me a little sad with how badly the underlying narrative around going to a residential service was, as I have seen really good things with good services.

Psychiatrists do use medication as a tool to achieve objectives. However, this is not their only tool and it (hopefully) is not their first resort. I have met some really good Psychiatrists who work in this field who work in a multidisciplinary team trying lots of different methods to help people (note again – people are trying to help). This show does not paint them in a good light. The show also has a little bit of outdating in their principles while talking about them, as currently (at least in my area) a lot of psychiatry of learning disability beds are being shut down to try and avoid institutionalisation and a large premise is in place to stop people with learning disabilities and autism being sectioned under the Mental Health Act. This is in one hand good, the statistics around sectioning are not good, and there is still a significant problem with that. But I want to highlight that, when used properly, sectioning can be really important to ensure someone has the right care in place to allow them to not be a danger to themselves or others and to function well. It is a huge power and so has a huge responsibility. When doctors use it, at least from my experience, it is for the good of their patients and because they are trying to help. I guess the problem is that the people making initial decisions may not have the experience to know what they are doing, which can lead to problems. But still, I want to stress, not all psychiatrists are evil – just saying.

But this being said, the story is cohesive as a whole with obvious acts and main points. There is a mild twist throughout the show in who called social services, which is predictable but hey, it worked for the plot. The humour worked well and felt appropriate. There was a mix of different tones throughout the piece. I feel that Alex Oates did a good job, but there is room for improvement in what he was doing that hopefully he can learn from if he does future work.

The set design was nice. It was simple. The lighting wasn’t overpowering. But it got the job done well. Some parts were beautiful because of it. There was a part of a scene where the parents are shouting, but Laurence was at the back of the stage with Gary behind a wall of interlinking strings. I found this beautiful and spent more time looking at Laurence and his acting than the parents. Overall, I felt it was designed well.

I caught one massive continuity error, which threw me off a little. At one point, a prototype ‘ring’ is put on Laurence’s finger by the Dad without the Mother knowing (the ring is a part of a prototype product that the Mum just got that she needs to use at work). She makes a note about how the ring would just be chewed if they left it with Laurence and so giving a cue that this was to be discussed again later. The ring didn’t appear again in the show after this point. This didn’t make sense to me, but maybe that was an attempt to subvert a trope? Probably the wrong trope to subvert, but hey ho.

There were a few bits that I didn’t feel were realistic when I was watching the show. At one point Laurence was given emergency medication to help him to calm down, which was likely a benzodiazepine (kudos for getting an accurate enteral syringe – good attention to detail props team!). Laurence is given this and calms down, but has no adverse effects afterwards. No unsteadiness. No exhaustion. Nothing. While, sometimes benzodiazepines can not appear to have any effect, the fact that his movements were exactly the same afterwards was a little odd to me. I felt he would at least be a little less coordinated. With this as well, they were sure fond of slamming doors on cupboards after the kid had just been overloading. From my experience when working with someone who didn’t like certain noises, you got conditioned to change your behaviour around that fairly quickly, and so I’d imagine they would be a bit gentler with cupboards after an overload.

From analysing that social story at the end, I feel they could have taken a few words out to make it more effective as there were a lot of ‘and’ words that weren’t necessary (I did some research with social stories in the past, which triggered me when I was hearing it). Also they use Makaton signing in the show. At one point Gary tries to sign happy to Laurence, but doesn’t use the sign for happy. This may be fine, as this may be how they communicate happy to Laurence. However, it would possibly be better practice to teach Laurence the conventional sign for happy as it would help avoid misinterpretations when at new services if Laurence starts using the sign, or if people at the new service try to sign ‘happy’ to him. But that is just a small thing.

So in conclusion – I found the show enjoyable and did not feel like it was a waste of money. I felt that the acting was good, the stage design was great, the writing was a little mixed but all in all solid, and mostly the details were ok. I do feel like the Dad’s character was a little underdeveloped and that Laurence could have been played by a neurodiverse human actor (whether child or adult).

The Guardian article says “Protesters gathered outside the theatre on opening night and more than 12,000 people with autism have signed a petition, arguing that it is dehumanising to use a puppet to depict an autistic child. What a shame.”. I don’t feel it was a shame. I am proud of people for standing up against something that they think is wrong. I think that it says something about the community that people will stand up and say when they disagree with something, so I don’t want to take away from that with this review. What I want to say though is that the show itself is alright. I feel like this show was a good small show. I feel that it may have gotten more press than it should have done due to them portraying the autistic child as a puppet rather than a human, which I hope wasn’t a publicity stunt.

Personally I would give it a rating of 3.5/5. However, I want to challenge the people working on projects like this in the future. Use neurodiverse human actors in your show where you can. It is a really positive thing for the community if you can do this.

Have you seen the show? What do you think about it?

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Darni has had a think about this and tried to be objective. But what do you think? #AskingAutistics

References:

The Guardian (2019). All in a Row review – autistic child puppet drama has warmth and truth. Last accessed: 24th February 2019.

Southwark Playhouse (Last accessed: 24th February 2019). All in a Row Gallery. – Used for the image

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