The London theatre sometimes makes it hard to be both the father of a profoundly disabled young man and a champion of drama’s ability to talk creatively about the challenges that we all face.
In 2015 the Park Theatre presented Brad Fraser’s Kill Me Now, a play about an 18-year-old boy with profound cerebral palsy. There are many issues with the play, not least - I kid you not - the suggestion that no greater love could a father show his disabled son than to wank him off in the bath. And if I told you that the young man in the play shared the same name and age as my Joey, you’ll understand why it left me stunned and gasping for breath. I’d been warned by an excellent article from Dea Birkett, but the result was even worse than I’d feared. Amazingly, it got good reviews and, the night I saw it, a standing ovation.
Alex Oates’ All in a Row, about the family of an autistic boy with high needs, came with similar health warnings. I’d heard last year of the plan to use a puppet to portray the boy, and before it opened I wrote a blog about the issues that I felt were raised by this decision. I was much criticised (in a frankly offensive, ad hominem fashion) by the producer for passing judgment on the endeavour before I’d seen it. And when the play opened there was a huge storm on social media (#puppetgate) and in one or two newspapers, with many people shocked and hurt by the decision. The play has received a range of reviews, some warm praise, others unequivocal condemnation, especially from people with experience of autism such as Saskia Baron and Shaun May. And so I thought that as a seasoned director and writer, but also as a vocal campaigner for the rights of disabled people, I owed it to everyone involved, as well as to the many people who’d been hurt by it, to see the play for myself. And so on Wednesday I made my way to the Southwark Playhouse and got myself a ticket.
Where to start?
As is well known by now, the use of a puppet to represent the young autistic boy has been much attacked, above all because it dehumanises him, reduces him to little more than animal movements and sounds, and drains him of his individuality. Some have defended the noble art of puppetry but, admirable as the young puppeteer’s skills are, this decision leaves a horrible taste in the mouth. But although it was this that first triggered my concern about the play, I, for one, found it the least of its many problems.
All in a Row has also attracted much criticism for concentrating on the challenges faced by the parents and neglecting the experiences of their son. But such parents often face seemingly insuperable challenges, as is evidenced by the dreadful statistics for marital breakdown, mental illness, unemployment, ill health and poverty. They are, I believe, entirely legitimate subject for drama.
To my mind, the play’s fundamental, and I’m afraid unforgivable, failure is the way that it seems to lay the blame for these problems on Lawrence himself. There’s a continuous suggestion that if it wasn’t for Lawrence’s autism, their lives would be easier, happier and more comfortable and that his existence is the worst thing that could possibly have happened to them.
But in my experience, real life is much more nuanced. Having met dozens of parents of severely disabled children I’m constantly struck by their strength and resilience. I’ve seen how a disabled child can radicalise families in ways that they couldn’t possibly have imagined before. Driven by love - the very same love that makes families do extraordinary things for non-disabled children - they develop remarkable coping mechanisms, and adapt to the particular circumstances with wit, stoicism and astonishing levels of creativity.
All in a Row presents, instead, a family in a constant state of catastrophe. But while I recognise that it might not make for thrilling drama, the playwright should have realised that the parents would have learnt that swearing and shouting is the very worst way of stopping the panic that is so often the response of the sensitive autist. Their endless hyperventilating simply isn’t believable, because they’d have known better. There’s no sense in the play of people who’ve gone through the full gamut of emotions and experiences over the last eleven years and adjusted their lives accordingly.
Nor is there much evidence of people who’ve worked out what their son likes and found ways of celebrating it, of encouraging it, of loving him for it. Instead, these pleasures are constantly belittled. I was appalled that when we heard that there are horses at the new residential school, it’s dismissed as being of no consequence. But my Joey spends hours on a farm and adores horses and other animals: so much so that when the local authority wanted to bring him back to London we specifically mentioned the way that the countryside reduced his anxiety. In other words, most parents come to love and celebrate whatever it is that makes their child happy, and do anything they possibly can to help. Connor Sparrowhawk loved London buses. Steven Neary loves glam rock. Joey loves animals. Every young person is different, but their families give them whatever they can, with a wry smile, practical affection, and all-conquering love.
The action of All in a Row takes place on the evening before Lawrence is moved to a residential school, 200 miles away from the family home. This had special resonance for me since I remember clearly the moment when Jenny and I first left the fifteen year old Joey at such a place. The reasons were different: Joey (who is also non-verbal) has intractable epilepsy and needed to be in a place where his epilepsy could be safely managed, whereas the autistic Lawrence has high support needs and can be violent and very destructive. But both moves were thought to be for their own good and I recognised some of the conflicting emotions that the fictional parents felt.
The play is confined to the family home, and the outside world is represented by a kindly if occasionally naïve care worker. But what we don’t sense is how the rest of society interacts with Lawrence and his family. There’s a frankly incredible subtext that a complaint about bruising has led to a police investigation and Lawrence’s subsequent move, but I didn’t pick up anything about a social worker, let alone the enormously complex bureaucratic mechanism required to bring about such a move. We eventually discover that it was the mother who rang the police (betraying her husband and son) but such requests - agonised, conflicted and guilt laden - require a long campaign, supported by compelling evidence of need, presented to local authorities who’re deeply reluctant to commit to the additional expenditure. Most families end up fighting local authorities, with some (we did) resorting to expensive lawyers. It’s a long, long way from a child being suddenly snatched away and sent off to an unknown location.
My point is that for the vast majority of families with disabled children, the struggles with the outside world are the real cause for their despair, exhaustion and rage. It’s sometimes said that there is a cabal of special needs parents and that such parents inevitably become campaigners of a better way of talking about and providing for the people that they love. And, certainly, in a society that is largely indifferent to their children they have to become champions, fighting against incredible odds, simply to secure for their child what is their basic human right.
And it’s this underlying lack of affection that really mars All in a Row. And please don’t think that I wanted a play that showed Lawrence’s parents in a state of endless bliss. And yes, I’m all too familiar with the need for a short break that allows everyone to recharge the batteries, whether it’s giving the marriage a chance, doing some work, or just catching up on sleep. (Which is one of the many brilliant things that KIDS, the charity that I chair, provides). What I wanted to see was more flavour, more contradiction, a greater sense of the self-knowledge that Lawrence’s parents would have acquired, the wisdom, the inner calm. The love, indeed. Instead we saw a husband and wife in terminal breakdown, with their young, non-verbal, vulnerable son being seen as the cause.
But Lawrence isn’t the enemy. Nor are his parents, let alone the carer. The real danger lies outside, and it’s here that the play slides into the worst kind of dangerous sentimentality. In the last moments, the parents are seen explaining to Lawrence (by use of a ‘social story’) that he’s moving on to a new school and that everything is going to be ‘ok’. But the dreadful truth - as campaigners like Sara Ryan, Ian Birrell, Mark Neary and many others have shown - is that the ATUs, the residential schools, and the care homes - the supposed ‘safety net’ - too often fail these vulnerable young people. The warm words of inclusivity mask a culture of indifference, while reputation management hides underlying failures of care. All in a Row touches on these dangers in passing, but more as another cause of grief than as an existential threat, and certainly not as a reason to contest their son’s move. A play that showed a young autistic boy being reduced to a puppet in one of the appalling institutions documented by Ian Birrell would be a far truer reflection of the tragic fate of so many disabled young people in Britain today than All in a Row.
Alex Oates will understandably and in many ways rightly protest that this isn’t the story he wanted to tell, and that his play is about one particular family at one particular time and place. And, of course, I know that each disabled child is different, each family is different, and each responds in different ways. But while I recognise that some of the dialogue catches the rhythms of this particular family’s everyday, so much of it is peppered with alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual dysfunction and scatology that the impression is of a family in hell, a poundshop imitation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or rather of a writer who mistrusts the quotidian and wants to ramp everything up to the maximum. And so he throws everything into the mix - at one point the mother even makes a tragically misjudged pass at the young carer - and you’re left trying to work out why. The bitter truth is that an audience with no experience of disabled children would draw the only possible conclusion: this is what happens if you’re unlucky enough to have a profoundly disabled child. The great disability mantra of ‘no triumph, no tragedy’ has been ignored.
What’s more, the playwright has a very uneasy control of the debate (at one point the kindly young carer surprises everyone by claiming that a disabled child is punishment for bad karma), but there’s a moment in the last quarter of an hour when you can sense him getting to the heart of his argument: it’s when the father declares that it should be acceptable to love someone who you wish was different. This is presented as a bitter but profound truth. The problem with this is its banality, not its courage: you could say the same about everyone. Yes, I would happily wave a wand and get Joey a scholarship to Oxford and knowing that that’s not going to happen doesn’t stop me from loving him. But I also look at myself in the mirror and wish I hadn’t lost my hair at the age of 16. And I have unprintable feelings about the defects of pretty much everyone in my family, but none of that stops me from loving them forever. We all love people we sometimes wish were different. It’s called being human.
And it’s this sense of self-pitying exceptionalism which I think makes All in a Row so misguided and, frankly, so dangerous. The great fight for dignity, decency and fundamental rights for people with severe disabilities must be rooted in the deepest sense of our shared humanity. Autistic people with high needs are our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, they are ourselves. But if we present them as something uniquely challenging, as a bomb that threatens our sanity, our family life, our capacity for love, they will inevitably end up being abused, neglected and forgotten. But, again, experience tells me something much more positive, something more creative: because the fact is that people with profound disabilities change families and we are all the better as a result of their presence. And if you don’t believe me, read Sara Ryan’s magnificent Justice for Laughing Boy, her account of the death of her learning disabled son, Connor Sparrowhawk, in an NHS unit (an ATU) and the subsequent campaign for justice. It’s thick with laughs, love and the absolute determination to make a better world.
I have three children: each has different needs and each has different abilities. The eldest studied at Cambridge. The second has no speech, severe learning disabilities and intractable epilepsy. And the third is a precocious 10 year old who has just (today!) got a place at the most competitive grammar school in North London. Each of them gives me something different: worries and delights, frustrations and whoops of joy. But until we see all our children as deserving of the same freedoms, the same opportunities, the same human rights, our society will fail to live up to its fundamental responsibilities. And that, for me, with this play, is the bottom line. I don’t accept that All in a Row was written or presented by eugenicists, nor did I sign the petition for it to be shut down. What’s more, I can tell you it’s a perfectly competent (if over-pitched) production with some very committed acting. I just wish that it approached this difficult subject with more humanity, more imagination, and, above all, more love, not just for Lawrence, but his parents too.
Families deserve better. Disabled children deserve better.
We all deserve better.