Brighton Festival 2015
Jess Thom has Tourettes, a condition that makes her say ‘biscuit’ 16,000 times a day. Her unusual neurology gives her a unique perspective on life: one she’s about to unleash on the world.
Weaving comedy, puppetry, singing and incredible tics, Backstage in Biscuit Land explores spontaneity, creativity, disability and things you never knew would make you laugh. Geranium-bashing and penguin gang bangs may or may not feature – no two shows can ever be the same. Jess is neurologically incapable of staying on script, and that’s when the fun begins.
Jess Thom has Tourettes syndrome, which in her particular case causes her to say ‘biscuit’ thousands of times a day, as well as hedgehog, cat and many many other odd and random words and phrases that pour out of her mouth. She also has several physical tics such as beating her chest, or stretching out her legs. These facts in and of themselves make for an interesting performance which is punctuated constantly by random and frequently hilarious interjections, sometimes taking Jess off on random tangents, which more often than not are just as amusing as what she was trying to say.
There were a great many wonderful things about Backstage in Biscuit Land, one of these being that it was ok to laugh. This is a show about Tourettes, being performed by someone with Tourettes, and from the outset the audience were given permission to laugh at the things she said or the movements she made. But what also made this ok was that Jess, and the other performer onstage, Chopin (Jolie Booth) also laughed at them, and took great delight in the creative hilarity of what Jess ended up saying. As a result this show was utterly charming and very funny, as well as having a very important and serious message at its core.
The show lets the audience know the reality of living with Tourettes, and we are told what to do if Jess has a fit (which happen frequently), it also explores some of the barriers Jess has faced whilst living in the world as a person with a disability, especially one that doesn’t allow her to keep quiet and obey the ‘normal’ rules of society. Backstage in Biscuit land is a very important piece of theatre for highlighting that there are human beings with feelings behind whatever disability they may have. Jess is clearly a very intelligent, creative and funny person, who happens not to be able to keep quiet during a theatre show, and has to use a wheelchair. This shouldn’t mean that she can’t have access to things that non-disabled people enjoy, or be viewed in any way as less of a person. Yet, sadly, in the serious moments of the piece, Jess explains to us the occasions when exactly this has occurred, and how that made her feel.
The day I saw the show was an interesting one. May 8th, the day the Conservative party were elected for another term in government. Early on Jess mentioned what a difficult day it had been for her, and how worried she is for the future, eliciting a long and heartfelt round of applause from the audience. Jess pointed out that with the proposed Tory cuts to her benefits and the arts she couldn’t hope to live an independent life in the way she does now or make theatre. This is obviously true and fundamentally extremely depressing, however, there was something wonderfully therapeutic about being in the theatre that night, surrounded by people who felt equally angry and disappointed with the election result. We were collectively sad, but also enjoying ourselves immensely, thus proving to Cameron and his cronies just how much value there is in the arts, especially art that champions what people with disabilities can achieve and create. If only he had been there…