“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.
“a strange brew of classical mythology and sex comedy, although it is often hard to tell what the story is at all”
Only by the time I’m on the bus, halfway to the venue, do I notice the proviso: “Not for the faint-hearted”. In all honesty, I had only had a brief glance at the show’s description before setting off, and what I half-expected to be a modern take on Greek comedy is in fact billed as a blend of “musical theatre, circus, and burlesque”. And “not for the faint-hearted”.
The plot line of “Zeus on the Loose” is a strange brew of classical mythology and sex comedy, although it is often hard to tell what the story is at all. It starts with a scheme between Hades and Hera to abduct Aphrodite’s twin and prevent the sisters from overpowering all the gods of Olympus (how or why they would do this is unclear). Concurrently, Hera is having husband issues; the insatiable King of the gods, Zeus, has committed one infidelity too many, convincing Hera to side with Hades (though again, quite why abducting Aphrodite’s sister constitutes betraying Zeus is never made clear). By the end I’ve pretty well lost track of both these plotlines, except that Hera ends up going to hell herself and doesn’t really seem too worried about it.
Randomly placed scenes follow one after the other, often with no discernible linkage. There are occasionally actual gaps in the music and dialogue as if to highlight this fact. Why, halfway through the show, do Zeus and Hera play a game called “Gods & Mortals” in which various characters compete in a choreographed battle? Sure, it’s a good excuse for a dance sequence, but I keep wondering why. The writing plays liberally (that is to say, inaccurately) with Greek mythology, which would be totally fine if only the characters didn’t feel the need to keep making a joke out of it. All the way through, the show makes overly difficult work of a plot that is really just a vehicle for the circus and burlesque.
Perhaps it is unfair to criticise the plot of a show too much when really the main attraction is in the singing, dancing and, yes, stripping. There are some genuinely impressive acrobatics on show including a terrifyingly athletic trapeze act and a woman shooting arrows at a target with her feet. I have to admit that bit gets me to sit up in a way that the burlesque elements really don’t. True, it is quite a spacious theatre and I’m not that close to the action, but for a play that begins with instructions on how to escape if the raunchiness gets too much, it doesn’t hugely shock or excite. The explained-away appearance of Cleopatra (Zeus’s cousin and lover, apparently) gives an excuse for a feathery, pharaonic striptease, but that’s about as saucy as it gets. I can’t help the feeling that both the provisos – and Hades’ constant innuendoes – oversell things slightly. Anyway, there are a couple of children in the front row, so the producers couldn’t have been planning anything too extreme. Good thing the kids aren’t “faint-hearted”.
In general, the performers make a good fist of it. The aforementioned circus acts are genuinely exciting, albeit a bit thin on the ground, and it is quite fun to hear Greek gods singing along to classic rock hits. Hades in particular keeps things running along relatively smoothly, and in his role as charming-but-deadly narrator he keeps the audience well-entertained.
On paper the concept sounds enticing, fusing musical theatre, circus and burlesque, and there is no doubt a version of this show exists in which the fusion comes together. However, on this occasion, the fun is both overstated and underwritten.