All in a Row
Reviewed – 18th February 2019
“From an inclusivity perspective, the use of a puppet instead of an actor is the wrong choice. From an artistic perspective, it is also the wrong choice”
Martin (Simon Lipkin) and Tamora (Charlie Brooks) are the parents of an eleven-year-old boy called Laurence. Laurence is autistic and requires constant care and supervision, something that is lovingly provided by his carer Gary (Michael Fox). Tomorrow, Laurence is leaving his family and going to a school that can give him the level of care he needs and deserves. But is it the right decision? And who made the call that forced his parents into this position?
If you read the above paragraph again, you might notice that a detail is missing. What is the name of the actor playing Laurence? But Laurence is not played by a living, breathing actor; instead, he is represented by a ginger-haired, grey-faced puppet (operated by Hugh Purves). This decision has been at the heart of a backlash against All in a Row, with some campaigners calling it ableist and dehumanising.
From an inclusivity perspective, the use of a puppet instead of an actor is the wrong choice. From an artistic perspective, it is also the wrong choice. It places an unnecessary barrier between Laurence and the audience, leaving us unable to connect with him. Even during the most heart-breaking scenes, Purves’ puppetry cannot convey the same emotion that an actor could: in fact, Laurence often disappears in the midst of his parents’ personal drama.
Unfortunately, this makes the rest of the show difficult to watch; even the strong moments were marred by the general sense of discomfort. And I do want to emphasise that there were good aspects. Lipkin and Brooks are utterly convincing as the warring parents whose love for their son is burdened by their frustration. The bond that Fox’s kind and earnest Gary forges with Laurence is genuinely sweet; it is easy to imagine how much he enriches Laurence’s life. PJ McEvoy’s set design is evocative, blending domesticity with more stylised aspects, such as the arch of crossed lines that extends across the back of the stage.
Alex Oates knows how to write a moving scene, but unfortunately most of them are weighed down by things that tell us more about the parents than Laurence himself. The relentless humour sometimes works – it is understandable that Martin and Tamora would like to look at the situation in a lighter way – but often deflates scenes that have a strong emotional charge. This feels like yet another barrier between us and the heart of the story. It adds to the feeling that this was a great concept for a play that should have been executed better.
I don’t believe that anyone had bad intentions with All in a Row, I just believe that a poor choice was made with regards to representation, which affected the way I experienced this production. At the end of the day, if an autistic character cannot be the most visible and memorable character in a play about autism, then the author’s portrayal was ineffective. Hopefully, this will open up a conversation in which both sides will listen and participate.
Reviewed by Harriet Corke
Photography by Nick Rutter
All in a Row
Southwark Playhouse until 9th March
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: