‘All In a Row’ is out of line: disability representation done wrong

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‘All in a Row’ is a play by Alex Oates, a neuro-typical individual who has experience working with autistic children and their families. It is currently being aired at Southwark Playhouse in London: 14th February- 9th of March. Thousands are demanding it be stopped; it’s now time to ask; what has ‘All In a Row’ done wrong? Opinions voiced by neurodivergent journalist Emma Robdale.

Despite its impressive cast featuring Charlie Brooks (EastEnders, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here), Simon Lipkin (Wind in the Willows, Guys and Dolls), Michael Fox (Downton Abbey, Dunkirk) and renowned puppeteer Hugh Purves the performance has been heavily criticised by autistic communities, who have brandished banners reading, ‘Not Your Puppet!’ outside the performance.

Photo of a group of people, smiling and bearing banners

Protest outside Southwark Playhouse organised by autistic activist and actor Paul Wady.

Any form of media representing a community, whose creators do not value the views and opinions of that community, has to be questioned. It is true that the playwright, Alex Oates, did consult the NAS (National Autistic Society). It is also true that he mostly ignored their advice. Oates has been accused of being ‘arrogant’ and dismissive of points raised by autistic communities. The most substantial criticism of the play is its use of a puppet to represent a learning disabled child, Laurence; whereas the rest of the cast are played by real actors…The NAS publically states it never supported this.

Connor Ward, an autistic blogger, described this use of puppetry as ‘dehumanising’ in his video review of the play. The puppet itself hasn’t been created to be life-like; it has a static expression and skin that is grey, further removing it from being a real child. The use of a puppet in this way means that the feelings and emotions of Laurence cannot be fully conveyed. Oates has defended the decision to use a puppet, stating that a learning disabled actor would not be suitable for the demands of the role. Many individuals from autistic communities oppose him on this. Shaun May, who lectures on Drama and Disability Representation at Kent University stated:

“The practical argument hinges on the idea that neurodivergent actors couldn’t play this character. I think they could and that the company are underestimating neurodivergent performers with that assumption.”

A learning disabled actor could have given some real depth and perspective to the role. Connor Ward, autistic Blogger, commented:

“I could have played the character… or someone like me! I can understand not having an autistic child playing the role because of language, and maybe violence… but an adult… no excuse! And they could have made the character older, 15 instead of 12, and done what a lot of films and plays do, cast a young looking twenty something year old!”

A learning disabled actor could have been chosen who did not have the same extent of difficulties that the character Laurence displays… but could have acted them. It seems that the production team did not seriously think of ways to include learning disabled actors.

Many have found the use of the puppet shocking… But for me, after writing my own dissertation on ‘The Misrepresentation and Under-Representation of Autism’, it is not the plays largest downfall. What I found disappointing is its portrayal of Laurence as a secondary character. The synopsis for the play for Southwark Playhouse reads:

“Like any couple, Tamora and Martin have big hopes and dreams. But when your child is autistic, non-verbal, and occasionally violent, ambitions can quickly become a pipe dream.”

The play centres on Laurence’s ‘caregivers’, Tam and Martin (Mum and Dad) and Garry (Carer), and their views towards him being a burden. At one point Garry compares Laurence to puppy because he jumps up and down, doesn’t follow commands and pees on things. Laurence, who is already played by a puppet, is also written as a secondary character in a play that is supposed to centre on autism.

“All of the comedic devices were taking the mickey out of autism. It wasn’t laughing with… it was laughing at.”- Connor Ward

A picture of a row of four fondant fancy cakes is being used to advertise the play. Three are yellow with chocolate icing and are in a neat row and one is blue and on its side. The puppeteer portraying Laurence tweeted: “I’m the blue fondant fancy that’s falling over!”… As an ND individual, I find this representation of disability insulting.

“Disabled people’s lives aren’t free material for playwrights.” Jess Thom, founder of Tourette’s Hero, comments in her review.

One of the biggest criticisms of ‘All in a Row’ isn’t that the directors have made a mistake, it is that they seem unwilling to admit it, or respond appropriately to the objections from the autistic community, whom the production team seems to have forgotten will want to view the play themselves….

There is only one ‘relaxed’ performance designed for autistic and ND people to see the play. Alex Oates defended this saying that one relaxed performance was more than most other plays offer, seemingly ignoring the subject matter of his own play, and who it should be aimed at. After viewing it himself autistic Blogger Connor Ward found there was ‘no readmission policy’… so if people needed a break they would not be let back in. This seems only to further prove that the play was ‘about’ autism, but not ‘for’ autistic people.

“If it was just the puppet it would be an easy fix… but it wasn’t.” – Connor Ward.

Dr Shaun May voiced that with just a few adjustments the overall accessibility for all of the performances could have been increased, such as by providing a quiet space nearby or sound-proof headsets.

However… maybe some good has come of this. The backlash to this play by autistic and ND people, who have been united in their opposition, has shown the growing power and voice of our community. Oates is choosing not to listen, which is why he is now fighting a community he claims to represent. Jess Thom implored the playwright to, “Listen to people with lived expertise and your work will be stronger creatively, politically, and socially.”

Many members of autistic communities are upset at this wasted opportunity; Connor Ward, reflected that:

“It could have been an excellent opportunity to give real insight. The playwright could have consulted properly with autistic individuals, and used the opportunity of taking it to the stage to educate a larger audience.”

In his video Connor asks Alex Oates to apologize to the autistic community for the offence it has caused. He goes on to say: “Better than an apology… let’s have a play about autism written by a great autistic writer!” Being a parent of an autistic child, having an autistic friend or being a caregiver is not enough; It does not give producers a rounded understanding of what it is like to actually be ND. It is only by true inclusion of ND communities that the liberal arts will progress in its representation of ND people.

“At a time of increasing hatred directed at disabled people, creative spaces have the potential to unlock new ways of presenting difference, and of connecting people with opportunity – but only if people with lived expertise are at the centre.” – Jess Thom

#actuallyautistic

Links to reviews on ‘All in A Row’ by other members of the ND community: