Writer: Ella Carmen Greenhill
Director: Adam Quayle
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Following a lengthy tour beginningin 2015, Manchester-basedtheatre company Box of Tricks is bringing back its production of Ella Carmen Greenhill’s 75-minute play Plastic Figurinesfor a four-week London run. The production’s success seems to confirm a recent trend which has seen the “difficult” subject of autism become box office and the reasons for this play’spopular appeal are very clear to see.
The National Theatre’s huge hit The Curious Incident…, centring around a teenage boy with autism, is essentially plot-driven, but this play, with a very similar teenager at its centre, is entirely character-driven, putting a much stronger focus on the writing and the performances. Rose has returned from Edinburgh to her family home in Manchester to take care of her autistic younger brother Michael when their mother becomes terminally ill.Written in non-linear form, the play takes place around the time of the mother’s funeral and Michael’s18th birthday.
Vanessa Schofield juggles dedication,frustration and tolerance in a beautifully judged portrayal of Rose. She knows that her affection for her brothercannot be reciprocated outwardly and, touchingly, she expresses hurt that, when Michael smiles, it is meaningless, being just something thathe has been tutored to do.Nature has determined that she and her brother will look at life from very differentperspectives, but we always sense that her actions in caring for him are driven by love more than duty. Her approach to living relies on common sense, but, for Michael, everything has to be orderly and rational. The writer is very astute in picking out the trivial issues over which clashesarise, such as Michael’s inability to blow out the four candles on his birthday cake because the correct number is 18. The clashes are sometimes humorous,oftensad.
Michael’s insistence that he is different but not stupid is realised perfectly in Jamie Samuel’s carefully nuanced performance. He needs face cards to explain the meaning of people’sexpressions, but he has learned to moderate his behaviour, even conceding an argument to his sister when he is certain that he is right. Samuel givesthe character dignity,butthe actor’s biggest triumph is in suggesting that,althoughthe naturalability to express emotions is missing from Michael, the emotionsthemselvesare still there inside him. This strengthens the feeling that sibling bonds can transcend the handicaps of autism, bringing themes into the playthat arereminiscent of the film Rain Man,and Samuels may well settle for being compared with Dustin Hoffman at thisearlystage in his career.
Katie Scott’s austerehospital waiting roomset reflects the simplicity of Adam Quayle’s production, which for the most part, keeps the drama restrained.The effect is to heighten the impact of flashpoints when Michael becomes hysterical or Rose’s exasperation erupts. Simplicity is the keyword, because Michael is not presented as a savant andboth characters are shown to beordinary people leading everyday lives,doing their best to meet the challenges laid down before them. It is this that lies at the heart of the play’s considerable appeal.
Runs until 22 October 2016 | Image:Richard Davenport