Edinburgh Fringe 2019
The shipping forecast has stopped ships becoming wrecks since 1911. Now it helps James copes with his mother’s death. A play about living with autism and storm warnings in Cromarty.
James’s mum has just died of cancer. His stepdad Alan has to break the news to him. Both find this difficult, Alan because he is grief stricken, Luke because Alan isn’t making sense in his explanation, plus Luke doesn’t like being touched. This is rule 2 in mum’s list of instructions to Alan on how Luke ‘works’. 50 Words will be familiar territory for those who have read or seen The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Netflix’s Atypical and this production treads the right side of the line when it comes to a sensitive, nuanced portrayal of teenager with autistic spectrum disorder. By the end of the play we are very much on James’s side when he expresses frustration at people who don’t say what they mean.
Told by an older James in flashback 50 words is an engaging and thoughtful play by new writer, Alex Zawalnyski, developed as part of the University of Edinburgh’s theatre company Candlewasters initiative. He wanted to write a script about a child cared for by someone who wasn’t a parent and James’s character grew from Zawalnyski’s experiences on a summer camp with children with autistic spectrum disorder.
The flashback device works well to tell the story of James and Alan’s developing relationship, rocky in places, but it also makes the piece accessible for people who need some signposting in following a story as James always tell us what is coming up. The set is simple but effective in this tiny venue, bringing to life a long train journey to north-east Scotland, although more use could be made of the doll’s house, maybe having dolls representing the two characters at times. The many British words that mean rain, scribbled in a child’s hand on different coloured paper strung up on the back wall, are intriguing and nicely integrated into the plot. James’s mum’s rules are written in a notebook full of helpful tips that Alan reads out and James also keeps a journal which he uses to script dialogue he imagines having, to comfort himself in his loss. This is a lovely dramatic device and perhaps it can be woven into the text earlier so that Jane, the mum, becomes a third voice to help tell James’s coming of age story.
Both Alan (Luke Malone) and James (played by Zawalnyski himself with subtlety and humour) are engaging characters although if the piece is developed further then Alan needs more back story and characterisation, even if he isn’t the protagonist. And although Malone is a good actor it would also be interesting to see Alan played by an older performer once the part has more to get their teeth into.
Overall this is a production well worth seeking out for its sensitive handling of tragedy mixed with understated humour told in an original way.