By Harry Murdoch
First performed in the Southwark Playhouse in February 2019, All in a Row is a play by Alex Oates centred on the parents of Laurence, an 11-year-old boy with autism. The production gained widespread controversy surrounding the choice to portray Laurence using a grey, expressionless puppet. However, to state that All in a Row’s depiction of autism’s problematic purely because of its use of puppetry ignores other elements which led to the production’s divisive reception, such as the ‘cripping up’ of the puppeteer and Laurence’s framing within the play. I intend to interrogate the impact of these individual components to discover why this production received such harsh criticism.
Although there are arguably aspects of the production which are more problematic, the public discourse focused on the depiction of Laurence using puppetry. Commentators criticised this decision and called for the production’s cancellation, with Frances Ryan suggesting that puppetry reinforced clichéd portrayals of the condition “which characterise neurodiverse individuals as unfeeling and with no autonomy.” (2019) Conversely, there were many who defended the decision, with Miriam Gillinson claiming that “as with all good puppetry – it soon begins to feel human.” (2019) Even this praise however conflicts with the account of Shaun May, who felt that “purely on a technical level All in a Row was not very good puppetry.” (2019) May found the puppet’s design “oddly distracting” (2019) being attached to Hugh Purves, the puppeteer, in a manner which made it look “like he was growing out of Hugh Purves’ groin.” (May, 2019) Other critics similarly criticised the puppetry, with Jane Kemp suggesting the piece would’ve been stronger if it were to “ditch the puppet, and allow the expressive and engaging Purves to act the role he’s already playing,” (2019). These accounts suggest that it would’ve been more appropriate for Laurence to have been simply portrayed by a human actor without the puppet.
In addition to the controversial choice to portray Laurence through puppetry, there’s the fact that the puppeteer, Hugh Purves, doesn’t have autism. This carries its own problematic implications. Non-disabled actors playing a characters with disabilities is commonly referred to as ‘cripping up’. Carrie Sandahl discusses the issues with ‘cripping up’, explaining that non-disabled actors lack the understanding of what it means to be disabled to give an authentic portrayal of someone with that condition. Sandahl writes:
Non-disabled people, even fine actors, understand the disability experience primarily through stereotypes available in mainstream media. These actors often focus on getting the outward shell of the characterization right (how a disabled person might move, speak, carry the body, etc.) but have little access to the lived experience of disability.
(Sandahl, 2010: 236)
Non-disabled performers are often only able to rationalise disabilities through mainstream generalisations of the condition and how they impact someone’s physicality. This results in shallow portrayals, in which the character’s disability is recognisable to an audience but does little to explore what it’s like for someone to live with it. Purves’ depiction of Laurence appears to repeat the pattern of ‘cripping up’, with Gillinson reporting that his performance consisted of recreating mannerisms commonly associated with autism such as “hums, moans, tics and chuckles.” (2019) and highlighting the character’s tendency to repeat activities, describing him “lose himself in Finding Nemo (again), carefully line up his cakes (again), hug and stroke his parents (again)” (Gillinson, 2019). This description is similar to how Stuart Murray describes “possibly the most obvious personification of the condition” (2008: 30) based off Leo Kanner’s 1943 report on autism, which he summarises as “The hand-flapping, self-stimulating, echolalic young child displaying no interest in others and obsessed with rituals” (Murray, 2008: 30). This definition’s an obvious generalisation of autism, with Murray stating that it’s “clearly a characterization, and the formation of a type with specific characteristics.” (Murray, 2008: 30) This depiction makes All in a Row’s portrayal of autism a shallow example of ‘cripping up’, lacking any depth or understanding of what it means to be on the spectrum.
Tobin Siebers similarly discusses the implications of ‘cripping up’, which he refers to as “disability drag” (2008: 116). He explains that watching an actor playing someone with a disability results in “the same experience of exaggeration and performance as when we view a man playing a woman. Audiences, however, rarely recognize the symmetry.” (Siebers, 2008: 115) The overstated portrayals of disability depicted by neurotypical actors is comparable to drag artistry, the difference being that whilst general audiences recognise the over the top nature of a drag act, they view “disability drag” (Siebers, 2008: 116) as closer to real life. Siebers believed that this practice was damaging as it “not only keeps disability out of public view but transforms its reality and its fundamental characteristics.” (2008: 116) both reducing the prominence of individuals who actually have disabilities such as autism and distorting the public’s perception of the impact the condition has. Siebers described disability drag as “a form of masquerade” (2008: 116) as it presents “an exaggerated exhibition of people with disabilities but questioning both the existence and permanence of disability.” (Siebers, 2008: 116) This extravagant, yet temporary act of masquerade’s prominently featured in All in a Row, as the puppet which Purves operates is made in such a way that Laurence’s torso and head is positioned in front of Purves’ own; the puppet functions as a mask for the performer to wear to feign Autism in performance then discard afterwards, delegitimising the lasting impact of Autism on those who have the condition.
There are also elements of All in a Row which reiterate the accepted narrative of people with autism and the role which they occupy. Alice Saville describes Laurence as “peripheral” (2019), disconnected from the drama between the neurotypical characters. Saville observes that Laurence acts as “more of a catalyst than a character” (2019) Existing to create conflict and set the narrative into motion. Murray’s writing on the representation of autism highlights that Laurence’s functional, but emotionally disconnected role is a common trope, observing that “autism is seen to be something that ‘affects’ people, a condition that produces personal stories.” (Murray, 2008: 2) Characters on the spectrum often serve this purpose, with Murray stating that “the character is barely present, a prosthetic figure in the margins used only to make other aspects of the narrative work.” (2008: 32) This is clearly seen in All in a Row, perpetuating this narrative even further through its portrayal of Laurence as a puppet, a literal “prosthetic figure” (Murray, 2008: 32). The play’s less concerned about how Laurence copes with his autism than it is with how his autism impacts those who care for him. Whilst there’s nothing inherently wrong with focusing on the parents of someone with autism rather than the person with the condition themselves, in doing so Oates positions Laurence as a narrative function to be discussed by those around him, rather than a character in his own right.
The issues with All in a Row aren’t particularly problematic in isolation. Oates focusing on the parents of someone with autism rather than the individual themselves isn’t in itself an issue. The concept of portraying the condition through puppetry also had potential to be an inventive alternative to casting an adult actor or having a child play such a challenging role. However, it’s these elements in combination with each other and their clichéd execution which results in the production’s portrayal of autism feeling poorly conceived and lacking innovation.
Gillinson, M. (2019) All in a Row review – autistic child puppet drama has warmth and truth [Internet]. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/feb/19/all-in-a-row-review-autistic-child-puppet-drama-southwark-playhouse-london [Accessed 14th July 2019].
Kemp, J. (2019) Review: All In a Row (Southwark Playhouse) [Internet]. Available from https://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/reviews/all-in-a-row-southwark-playhouse_48530.html [Accessed 1st October 2019].
May, S. (2019) All in a Row Review [Internet]. Available from https://shaunmay.co.uk/allinarow/ [Accessed 14th July 2019].
Murray, S. (2008) Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination. Liverpool, Liverpool University Press.
Ryan, F. (2019) Casting a puppet as an autistic child is a grotesque step backwards [Internet]. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/feb/12/casting-puppet-as-autistic-child-step-backwards-new-play-row-other-actors-played-by-humans [Accessed 14th July 2019].
Sandahl, C. (2010) Why Disability Identity Matters: From Dramaturgy to Casting in John Belluso’s Pyretown. In: Henderson, B. ed. and Ostrander, N. ed. Understanding Disability Studies and Performance Studies. London, Routledge. pp. 225-241.
Saville, A. (2019) All in a Row [Internet]. Available from http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/all-in-a-row-theatre-review/ [Acessed 14th July 2019].
Siebers, T. (2008) Disability as Masquerade. In: Disability Theory. Michigan, The University of Michigan Press, pp. 96-199.
Harry Murdoch is a BA Drama and Theatre student at York St John University.
This post is a extract from his third year dissertation titled: ‘Cripping Up’ Vs Authentic Casting: Discussing the Portrayal of Characters with Autism in Theatre.