Brighton Festival 2019
This collaboration between Birds of Paradise Theatre company and the National Theatre of Scotland deftly directed by Robert Softley Gale was an outstanding and truly ground breaking piece of musical theatre that propels us to laugh at the ludicrous attitudes of non-disabled people through the eyes of a local theatre company that are preparing for a national Am-Dram showcase of the year . This is revolutionary play-within-a-play, leaving the audience with a true understanding of what ‘inclusive’ actually means.
Framed in the Brighton Theatre Royal for a run of five nights, the Scottish disability-led theatre company, Birds of Paradise has Robert Softley Gale at the helm and is a key player in the disability arts scene in the UK embodying the principles of creative access through acting and directing work for over seventeen years. There is a director’s note stating that as a young boy with cerebral palsy when he first saw My Left Foot in 1989 was the first time he had seen a character portrayal in film with the same impairment as himself and how his mum had thought Daniel Day Lewis’s performance was brilliant as it was so like him. The dilemma was that the actor did not have cerebral palsy. Gale invites us to share this notion through this musical narrative how when disability is depicted in our culture it often reinforces that disabled people are victims and Gale set out to create a musical theatre comedy to poke fun at these attitudes.
This is a relaxed and accessible performance where we are introduced to the local Am-Dram group’s community hall in which we meet a cast of eight, one which narrates and holds the score throughout the show on the piano. The company are under pressure to comply with the equalities agenda and they are desperate to win the one-act festival and will go to all costs in terms of casting. The musical is set in two acts with ten songs that punctuate the story-line in which each of the seven actors represent a theme society plays in ignorance and fear in relation to disability. These themes stretch from being far too protective, anxious and thinking you know what is best which ultimately ends with losing sight of the person. There are rehearsals, deceptions and a love triangle that transports us to the Am-Dram competition with absolutely no political correctness in sight.
The impressive collaborative creative team who have written and scored the show which include Thomas, McKenzie and Gilmour punctuate the narrative with aesthetic tension and ferocious wit with room for regulatory moments of realisations and experience crafted by a very talented cast. Natalie MacDonald who played Nat who in role wanted to ‘try out’ Am-Drama and the BSL performer was outstanding through her exhilarating use of space to weave the characters stories together without leaving role and executing pools of narratives and emotions. Nat was the glue that held the ensemble together. Each actor personified their stereotype of societies role in how they view disabled people without becoming too grotesque that would alienate the audience. Richard Conlon brought hilarity and skill with comic timing depicting his crushing social anxiety. Gail Watson in her excruciating painful prejudice of what is right for others had a powerhouse voice. Katie Barnett really did embody the infuriating personality of a ‘do gooder professional’ and brought endless energy to the role. Christopher Improsciano was exceptional in delivering how his character brought progressive meaning to this dysfunctioning theatre company along with Neil Thomas in his skill to hold the power and vulnerability of the ‘actor’. Shannon Swan was mesmerising in her use of proxemics and Alex Parker kept a score with a comforting ease.
The set was a community hall, resembling the eighties, with all the usual metal chairs and dated décor and we enter as this is well lit and smokey. Costumes and set designed by Rebecca Hamiliton accentuated the stereotypical characters with vibrancy. The lyrics are so un-politically correct, with very real references to sex and intimacy that it propels us to really look at our perceptions. This musical made excellent use of theatrical devices to tell the story through sequencing, cannoning and choral work in which the cast deftly moved together. It is a clever and witty musical which plays on words and language to make a point. The point which the audience are left with is that in order to be inclusive in the arts, life and love is not about controlling peoples’ experiences but allowing everyone’s experience to be as valid as your own and listening to this. Challenging our judgements. This is an outstanding Musical which really does celebrate this way of working.