Writer: Tommy the Queer Historian
Director: Alistair Wilkinson
Tommy is angry. And it’s not without reason: they received two letters in the same post. The first notified them that their Disability Living Allowance was being stopped, because they had failed to attend an assessment they knew nothing about: the second, that they had been reported for benefit fraud, and if they couldn’t convince the authorities that they weren’t a fraudster, they could face prison.
Those events happened to Tommy in 2017. How Disabled Are You? is, they say, a means of exploring the rage they feel as a result of their, and others’, treatment by the system, in ways that at the time they could not articulate.
Interspersing their monologues about their disabilities, the effect they have on their life, and their experience at the fraud interview, are transcripts of interviews Tommy conducted with people who believe that many people on benefits are defrauding the system. Many of the interviews featured are of people who work at Job Centres – and, distressingly, their objections seem to stem less from direct experience, and more innate prejudice against the poorest in society.
These interviews are read not by professional actors, but by two disabled people with no performing experience, sight reading the interviews for the first time. Initially, this is a jarring experience. An actor would find a vocal structure to each piece, knowing exactly where to place the emphasis in each sentence for the most effective narrative.
What we get instead, though, are the raw, uninhibited banalities of people for whom classism, ableism and racism are woven into every fibre of their life. Some the statements are chilling in the banality of their bigotry. Snap judgements are made: if a claimant walks into the Job Centre using a cane one day, but manages without it on another, it’s assumed that he must be “putting it on”. Another bemoans how benefit claimants spend some of their income on cigarettes, alcohol, even occasional trips out to the cinema. Tommy explains how they did not interrupt during the interviews; while it’s disappointing that more is not done to directly challenge such prejudice, in many cases it allows the interviewees to keep digging when they find themselves in a hole of their own making.
Most damning of all is Tommy’s recounting of their fraud interview, where the litany of unfounded complaints against them are, they are told, raised by other Brighton gays who are jealous of Tommy’s payments, “because they’re not dying off with HIV like they used to”. It’s one more nail in the coffin of a system that does everything to dehumanise those it is serving so that it can ignore its own inhumanity.
With so much going on in the monologues on stage, a video montage pouring scorn on the successive Conservative leaders and cabinet members who have made things immeasurably worse for those on benefits – starting with Iain Duncan Smith, who introduced the concept of Universal Credit in 2012 – seems unnecessary. But when combined with some sobering statistics about UC, DLA and its successor, the Personal Independence Payment, the video does highlight the key themes of Tommy’s theatrical work: it’s not the poor and the disabled who are the inhuman parts of the system. We have every right – every need – to be as angry as Tommy is.
Continues until 24 May 2022