sun 14/07/2024

All in a Row, Southwark Playhouse, review - soapy and shrill pity party | reviews, news & interviews

All in a Row, Southwark Playhouse, review - soapy and shrill pity party

All in a Row, Southwark Playhouse, review - soapy and shrill pity party

Clumsy drama tries to raise sympathy for parents with a profoundly autistic child

Hugh Purves (puppeteer behind Laurence) with Charlie Brooks as his motherNick Rutter

Time once again to roll out that line about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

The creators of All in a Row, a new play at Southwark Playhouse about the last evening at home for an autistic non-verbal 11-year-old before his despairing parents send him away to residential school, was doubtless conceived with the dramatists’ belief that they were shining a light on a dark place. But the result is a grim 90-minute shouting match of bitter mutual recriminations and self-lacerating jokes which only reinforces every stigmatising cliché about the torment of having a child with behaviour that can be challenging.

If All in a Row aims “to raise awareness, representation and support for severely autistic people and their families” as its director claims in the programme, it’s backfired spectacularly. The audience is instead exposed to a shrill soap opera with a set that looks like a bargain basement rehash of Bunny Christie's design for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. The script by Alex Oates is essentially a pity party for parents; audiences will leave his play with all their prejudices confirmed that having an autistic child with profound learning difficulties is the worst thing that could happen to a marriage. How does that help raise awareness or make it any easier for autistic people, their families or supporters? It just perpetuates fear, stigma and ignorance.

The decision to have the boy, Laurence, played by a grey-faced puppet, has caused considerable controversy. Autistic campaigners and their allies have organised a petition, galvanised the media and Twitter and on press night staged a well-mannered protest outside the theatre. In their opinion, the puppet in All in a Row is another example of dehumanising autistic people. Certainly it is a baffling choice by designer/director Sîan Kidd as the puppeteer Hugh Purves’s face is visible at all times and he not only makes sounds but also facial expressions. The puppet is a redundant, clumsy distraction, an awkward torso with limbs and a felt head attached to Purves’s body. The decision not to cast a child actor, autistic or otherwise, is reasonable; it’s hard to imagine any 11-year-old performer enduring the physical and emotional abuse that’s meted out on stage. But there’s no reason not to cast an adult in the role; effectively that is what’s happened by making Purves an obvious presence.All in a Row, Southwark Playhouse, photo by Nick RutterIt’s hard to warm to any of the characters on stage. Charlie Brooks plays Tamora, knocking back wine after another day spent being an inspirational speaker in the tech industry, only to come home to her son who is such an unfathomable disappointment. She has taken Laurence to Lourdes, followed every diet cure, and still he only likes pizza and isn’t toilet-trained. Her shrill envy of other parents at school with their special needs children and her disrespect for the teachers who work with them, make her particularly dislikeable. Simon Lipkin plays stoner stay-at-home dad Martin, embarrassed by his son's behaviour in public and resentful of his wife’s career. 

Martin is alternatively inappropriately matey and hysterically accusatory towards Laurence’s hired-in carer Gary (Michael Fox). Some unknown person contacted social services about bruises found on Laurence. Was it Gary who made the call? There have been humiliating interviews with the police and the decision made that the boy would be better off in a residential school. Gary, despite working with this family for two years and having experience of other special needs setting, is wholly ineffective as a carer. He's unable to communicate to the parents that it's their angry voices and obvious disgust towards their son which contributes to his meltdowns and make him lash out and bite. I’ve been around autistic people all my life and no matter how profound their communication impairments might be, I’ve never met one who didn’t know when someone didn’t like them. All in a Row doesn’t like autistic people and it doesn’t help them or their families one iota. It’s also a miserable night in the theatre unless you enjoy watching actors tear each other to pieces.


As an actual autistic I am awfully distressed by the show and the puppet concept. I want to warmly thank you for your review, you are a true ally.

Well said! As an adult with only recently diagnosed aspergers and adhd and having lived a life bullied by my parents and teachers and pretty much everyone else, it upsets me to see a child reduced like this.

What a nasty review.

what a nasty play

This play seams to perpetuate the terrible perception that parents of autistic children are bad parents. Research has demonstrated the totally unfair number of social services referrals autistic parents get. It's such a backward and dangerous caricature. I am always in total admiration of all the dedication, love and sacrifices fellow parents at my child's autistism school demonstrate to their children and the autism community every day. Most autism parents I know wouldn't change anything about their child, but wishes every day that society would change.

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