Writer and performer: Robert Softley
Reviewer: Richard Hall
Robert Softly is one of the many ground-breaking disabled artists that have been invited to perform at this year’s impressive Sick! Festival. In this engaging and warm-hearted show, Robert, recounts with candour and humour a collection of funny, sad and touching stories about his and other people’s disability. Robert was born with acute brain damage which has meant that he has lived with cerebral palsy and a speech impediment for all of his life. Based on his own experiences and verbatim interviews that he has conducted with other disabled people, Robert explores in this fascinating show how people view body image as a way of defining what they feel about themselves and others. With a cheeky grin from the outset, which he maintains all the way through, Robert sets out to challenge and dispel this notion and reveal truths that lay hidden behind bodies such as his that differ from the norm.
At the beginning of the show, Robert crawls into the performance space and then with some difficulty climbs onto a raised platform on which is set a single white arm chair, from which he conducts proceedings. Comprising of short monologues, the show is fast-paced and for someone with a severe physical condition, Robert moves sprightly, with action and a real sense of purpose. The monologues in which he talks directly about his own life are particularly engaging and affecting. while talking about growing up, attending school and going on first dates, he charms the audience with his mischievous smile and affectionate and witty anecdotes, one of the most tender and memorable being about eating spaghetti in an attempt to impress a new boyfriend.
Some of the monologues contain brutal and vivid descriptions of the bigotry, discrimination and prejudice that Robert has faced, such as when he was asked while visiting his younger brother in hospital to strip naked to satisfy a junior doctor’s curiosity about his condition. These make for uncomfortable listening but are essential in creating a full and frank picture of the world in which Robert and other disabled people live in. During the piece Robert proclaims with pride that he is happy with the way his body looks and also that in his head he thinks he sounds like Laurence Oliver. To spend time with this engaging, gregarious and brave young man is a real treat and pleasure. Robert packs a lot into the sixty minutes that he is on stage. It is a breathless performance and it is no surprise that his last words on leaving the stage are that he is knackered.
Although it has only been running for a small number of years, based on this year’s Festival programme, Sick! can now boast that it has become an established and vital part of Manchester’s burgeoning and thriving arts scene. If they continue to programme shows of this quality and integrity then this reviewer for one will be extremely happy.
Runs until Thursday 23 March 2017 | Image: Contributed