Writer: JJ Green
Director: Bronagh Lagan
Boy is autistic. At the age of 7, he is well aware of the difference between “literally” and “figuratively”, but has greater difficulty distinguishing between our world and his, where he gets to swim with mermaids every day and hasn’t quite realised that the rest of us don’t.
In the real world, his mother is bearing the brunt of caring for her son, while his father is not only reluctant to acknowledge Boy’s different needs, he also wants a son who’s into football instead of playing dress-up.
A-Typical Rainbow is a rarity in theatre: a play about autism, written by an autistic person. What limited view we get tends to be from an outsider’s perspective, and so has a tendency to place autistic people as supporting roles in neurotypical characters’ stories.
Here, instead, we are invited in to observe the world from the point of view of someone with ASD. And Green’s view of the world is delightful: full of colour, metaphor and lashings of humour. As someone in need of a regular routine, an off-hand use of the word “maybe” segues into a sketch set in an airplane, with the stewardess (Caroline Deverill, who also plays Boy’s mother) explaining that, in the event of an emergency, a life jacket may be under your seat. The resulting passenger panic makes for an effective portrayal of how Boy feels.
Director Bronagh Lagan takes Green’s world of words and creates an evocative representation of it on stage. The use of cube trunks, of projected imagery and expressive moment (tightly choreographed by William Spencer) at times evoke memories of the National Theatre’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, perhaps the most famous work to previously try and present an autistic boy’s view of the world on stage. This may be intentional: in a show with many repeated references and phrases throughout, Mark Haddon’s book is discussed in a later scene where an older Boy and his class mates are reading it.
The representation Boy feels at the portrayal of Christopher in that novel makes him feel validated, that he is not alone. But that is undercut by his classmates laughing and jeering about the boy in the novel – and, by extension, laughing and jeering at him.
The lack of understanding from professionals who should know better is a recurring theme. From the teacher who fails to recognise that Boy is being bullied and to the doctor who seeks to suppress anything of Boy that might be considered as not normal. The desire to suppress and deny anything outside “typical” or “expected” behaviour is seen as a good thing by the professionals, while we can see from Boy that he should be elaborated as he is.
As the play progresses and Boy grows from a small boy to a young, queer man with his first boyfriend, some of the magic of youth fades away, even though Green and Lagan both find ways to sprinkle pieces here and there.
But it is in the second act that some of the drawbacks of Green’s approach make their presence felt most strongly. While most of A-Typical Rainbow is presented in a first person narrative, Green’s winning personality shining through throughout, he gives more serious monologues to the key people in his life: firstly his mother, then later his father (James Westphal) and, later still, his boyfriend Daniel (Conor Joseph).
For Westphal, it provides the father with a much-needed layer of nuance that would have perhaps been better portrayed throughout, and might have prevented the parents’ strained relationship coming across as playing the same notes we have seen in so many dramas. In the case of Daniel, we hear the narration of their growing relationship rather than see it, meaning only the very start and very end of that key part of Boy’s life are portrayed.
Such quibbles are balanced, though, by an intelligent use of repeated dialogue. Lines from Boy’s doctor (Westphal again) which seem cold and cruel in a clinical context are spat back at Boy by his school bullies; some of Boy’s own observations about the world are mirrored by Daniel in their first meeting. This all reinforces Green’s story and the position in which he holds each character.
Running at an advertised 2 hours 20 minutes, A-Typical Rainbow could benefit from some judicious editing, which would still allow all of Green’s points about autism and the way autistic people are treated to come across without losing any of the humour or pathos that are present throughout. For a writer’s first play, this is as assured as it is a little over-eager to include everything and remove nothing.
To Boy’s over stimulated brain, feelings, emotions and situations gain colours. When things get too loud, everything goes orange. Moments of pure joy are rare, and golden. And while A-Typical Rainbow has its faults, it is still a rare, insightful, golden moment: theatre needs more of these.
Continues until 7 August 2022