Hi everyone. Firstly, apologies for the super-long hiatus. A levels and preparation for university/drama college have been taking up all of my time. Truth be told, I don’t really have time to be doing this, but I absolutely had to write a review about this piece of theatre.
Now, if you are a regular theatre-goer in Cardiff, or in the online autistic community in the South Wales area, you’ve probably heard of TBTY, a piece aiming to challenge the negative stereotypes of people with autism by showing the challenges and the undocumented joys of living ‘on the spectrum’. Since its opening night it’s been causing a stir and getting rave reviews. This is about to add to that collection. I know Josh Manfield (playing the protagonist Carl) personally, so understandably that might make me seem biased, but there are so many amazing reviews that you don’t have to take my word for it if you don’t trust me to be unbiased.
Now, it wouldn’t be a post of mine if there wasn’t some random personal drivel chucked in here and there, so I’m going to talk a little bit about the evening itself. If you’re just interested in the review itself, I’d skip the next four paragraphs. I was going to see Josh with a few mutual friends from my drama class- a guy we’ll call K, a girl (let’s call her Hat), and Josh’s girlfriend.
So, Josh and K came to pick me up to take me to Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff’s home of really good theatre and incredible pretention. I was a little more nervous than I had any right to be- I wasn’t going on stage- but they all go way back, and here was I, unsure how to pitch myself. Accept that I’m the newb and stay quiet so they forget about me? Pretend I’ve always been here and become the annoying one who nevers shuts up? I shouldn’t have worried- I think I’ve found the drama family that I’ve been searching for in school but haven’t found.
So, around six o’clock yesterday evening, Josh and K rock up at my house, bundle me into the back seat (which I shared with a bag of at least 50 hangers- what even), and hurtled off into the night. Josh acts like he drives. There’s a constant rhythm in everything he does (which makes sense, seeing as he’s also a musician– he’s really good, if angry folk punk is your thing), as if music is blaring in his very veins. Even at quiet moments stuck in traffic, there’s a certain anticipation and energy hanging over him. Most of all, he throws himself around with a frightening intesity that makes you flinch in anticipation of injury.
Basically, I wouldn’t put a crash victim in his back seat.
Basically, if you like plain, uninteresting naturalism that doesn’t change your perceptions of life, that doesn’t make you experience raw emotion, that you can easily forget about after having left the theatre, this show is not for you.
We arrived with plenty of time to spare and me and K shared a pizza (just a note: Chapter’s pizzas are AMAZING. Forget the performance, the food was life-changing). There were a few minor challenges- K accidentally bought a matinee ticket so sat outside until the performance was over, and Hat literally arrived as we were filing into the theatre (“Who’s Eleanor?” was her first thought when I Facebooked her out of the blue telling her to hurry up, before she realised who I was). Then, it was showtime!
We walked in to see that the audience were sat on both sides of the action, facing each other (‘traverse’ to the dramatically inclined), which immediately got my theatre nerd senses tingling. Unlike it’s kindred spirit ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, TBTY didn’t have the amazing set and stage design to create a visual representation of autism, and instead relied on minimalism to convey it’s message just as successfully.
My favourite part of the set were the lightbulbs hung a little lower than the rest of the lights, which softly lit the stage when Carl would look up at all of the wonders of the universe that he loves to talk about with a passionate intensity.
The first thing you are greeted with is Carl, sat cross-legged on the floor, smiling and waving to the audience members. “Hello Face!” he calls out cheerfully, and in those two words encapsulates the dilemma of the play; in many ways, Carl is just like any other kid, but in others, he’s glaringly different in a way the world doesn’t accept. As I took my seat, with Josh sitting with his back to me, it struck me how small he looked. Josh is not an intimidating figure at the best of times: five foot six on a good day, a little effeminate, and a thespian, daahling. But sat in lone pool of light, he looked so intensely vulnerable that his very posture evoked a pity from me immediately.
Josh was undoubtedly the powerhouse of the piece, the gravitational centre of the action around which the other actors rotated. Considering this was his theatre debut, and he was the youngest of the four actors, this was no mean feat. However, the other actors also gave outstanding performances. Perhaps some of the most touching scenes were between Carl and his mother, played by Stacey Daley, as she tries to understand the way her son sees the world, and to explain social niceties like ‘how are you’ (“no-one actually wants to know how you’re feeling,” she expalins humourously), and it’s as if she’s explaining some bizarre culture to a bemused and confused traveller. Their relationship is among the most touching in the play, and Daley’s every expression conveyed the deep love she has for her son.
In a stark but no less touching contrast, his father (played by Jams Thomas) worries about the way he and Carl will be viewed by a cold and unsympathetic society who are quick to mock difference. You love and hate the father in equal measure, recognising his motives born entirely out of love, but cursing him for his entirely human flaws. The scene in which the father explains to Carl that he can’t go to a party because he hasn’t been invited (because he has no friends in his class) was one of my favourite scenes, and it really struck a chord in me.
This brings me onto the most important point of this whole post: while you may not have experienced that exact experience, we all know what it feels like to be ostracised, left out. The writer, Tim Rhys, sums it up perfectly: “I see Carl as a kind of everyman protagonist in a way, but one who just happens to be autistic.” The party experience, plus Carl’s references to his sitting alone at lunch, were a painful reminder of feeling different in school, especially right at the start of secondary school. If a four foot, mile-a-minute kid who scampered round like she had caffeine in place of blood couldn’t fit in, how would the students treat a kid who sees the very act of conversation a minefield? I started thinking back- did I ever ostracise someone because they were too different for even me to handle? Probably. Kids are cruel. I feel like if anything is going to kill off this incredible species it’s our aversion to difference, aka literally the best weapon against extinction, the powerhouse of evolution.
Possibly the most harrowing scene was the scene with the therapist, played by Dafydd Wyn Roberts. In this scene, the therapist is using the a form of psychotherapy called touch blue, touch yellow, using positive reinforcement to reinforce compliance and obedience. If that doesn’t sound like it’s come straight out of a dystopia to you, I’ll share a description of events in Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ from sparknotes:
“Some nurses present the babies with books and flowers. As the babies crawl toward the books and the flowers, cooing with pleasure, alarms ring shrilly. Then, the babies suffer a mild electric shock. Afterward, when the nurses offer the flowers and books to the babies, they shrink away and wail with terror. The Director explains that after 200 repetitions of the same process, the children will have an instinctive hatred of books and flowers. A hatred for books is ingrained in the lower castes to prevent them from wasting the community’s time reading books that might “decondition” them.”
See the parallels? I was in communication with Josh through his extensive research for the part, and he was horrified to find out that this remains one of the most popular forms of ‘curing’ autistic kids (trust me when I say- it’s not a thing that can be or needs to be cured.) In this scene, Carl was treated patronisingly, like a dog that needed to be trained, except that imagine that the dog has a broken leg that it’s trainer is refusing to acknowledge. Carl was obviously in so much mental anguish which the therapist ignored in an impassive, emotionless way (ironically, the way people with autism are often presented-just maybe the people who are quick to judge are the compassionless ones). This was the scene in which I realised that this might just have made it onto my top three performances, because it took all of my energy to force myself to stay in my seat and not club Roberts’ character to the floor. At the end of the sequence Carl stands up and spits in the therapist’s face, spraying the sweets he’s been offered across the floor in a high-definition under the burn of the lights. At this point, a massive grin spread on my face as I thought, “Atta boy.”
The last theme I want to touch upon was the solace Carl finds in the online autistic community. Josh mentioned his research into this in an interview with ‘Radio Wales Arts Show’, saying, “Eventually he does take solace in finding friends online, which I know from research, a few people I’ve spoken to, they’ve really found a comfort zone online where they can speak freely and be themselves.” He sat in a pure white box of light, communicating with his friends without having to worry about social conventions or how they acted differently. The moment when Carl said exasperatedly “I can’t get a girlfriend” was particularly poignant as you could see the realisation dawn on him when another user ‘pegasus’ says “you don’t need one”.
Ultimately, the message of this play was about growing up with autism, and navigating a world treacherous enough for even the most neurotypical person. Detracting from that would be missing the point of the play. And while have learnt a lot about autism, I’ve also gained an insight into what it means to be different, a universal challenge we all relate to. This play touched me emotionally more than anything I’ve ever seen in my life and I left emotionally raw. Carl is a character that will stay with me forever.
It’s also reminded me of the isolation that too many of my friends can relate to, the kind of isolation I’ve managed to just avoid. It’s reminded me of every time I’ve done something then cringed at the awkward silence it’s left as I realise too late that I’ve done something ‘weird’. So for the love of God, if you see a kid at school, or uni, or that quiet guy that no-one talks to at work, go and talk to them. It’s how I’ve made some of my good friends. I know some people prefer their own company, but no-one would begrudge a friendly conversation, as long as it’s not done mockingly. I’m not saying you have to be best buds, just extend the olive branch. You could make the most profound friendships of your life. Or you could just brighten someone’s day.
What do you have to lose?
PS: Yes I know this is such a long post, but consider it as a payback for not coming on here for a month.
Touch Blue Touch Yellow will be touring around the UK, starting at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2016. I’d highly recommend going to see it, you won’t regret it.