Crips Without Constraints returns. “A total inspiration”…to do exactly what? Cue stunned silence


Kate Lovell reviews Crips Without Constraints Part 2’s first offering: How Do You Make A Cup Of Tea? by Kellan Frankland, produced by Graeae Theatre Company.

In 2020, Graeae produced a series of monologues called Crips Without Constraints, written by disabled writers, recorded by disabled actors in their homes, and broadcast on Graeae’s YouTube channel week by week across the locked-in spring. Now, Graeae return to rescue us from our winter blues with a new series of Crips Without Constraints, kicking off with a delightfully absurdist two-hander starring Mandy Colleran and Dame Harriet Walter: How Do You Make A Cup Of Tea? written by Kellan Frankland.

*A spoiler alert must arrive here* – the first few minutes of this short play are best enjoyed in blissful ignorance of what’s to come. If you haven’t watched yet, get yourself a cup of tea and spend 20 minutes alternately sniggering and seething, then come back to read the rest.

A Zoom call has become a familiar format for pandemic plays and this piece is an example of necessity providing an opportunity for creativity to flourish. Actress Frankie (Mandy Colleran) dials into a Zoom call with the esteemed Sally Dean (Harriet Walter) to discuss the new play they will be working on together. But having a digital encounter is for a reason that far pre-dates the complications of Covid: the lift in the theatre is broken, meaning that Frankie can’t access the building in her electric wheelchair.

Fine, a digital meeting works just as well for a one-to-one for co-stars of the upcoming production and, barring a few cringy comments of surprise from Sally about Frankie’s penchant for cooking vegan treats, the two get off to a decent start, agreeing on the play’s metaphors and laughing together over its enigmatic ending.

But a spanner soon chokes up the works when Sally is outraged to discover that Frankie believes she has been cast in the lead role as the disabled character, Emily. Frankland pleasingly plays with the satire of Sally’s outrage that Frankie could ever imagine that a disabled actress would be cast in a lead disabled role, over and above someone with her “star quality”. No, Frankie is there to provide the “inspiration” to the seasoned actor, far more qualified for presenting the truths of a disabled character.

A litany of woefully recognisable assumptions, preconceptions and downright offensive beliefs flow forth from Sally through the preceding “consultation” with Frankie about how to play disabled. Colleran is absolutely riotous to watch, with the close-up Zoom format perfect to absorb every subtle facial expression that she gifts us with in this superb performance. A particularly beautiful moment is her nonplussed facial flicker when Sally explains that the Post-It notes she is relentlessly fastening to her face are part of a personal character-building exercise.

Walters delivers a brilliantly petulant Sally who eventually dissolves into a tantrum about it not having been her decision, then only a savvy business decision for the jobbing actor, before finally whining that it is her ‘right’ to play any part she wants.

Colleran plays a cool Frankie, her lack of engagement allowing Sally to tizzy herself into a corner of nonsense defences for taking on the role of Emily. At the play’s end, Frankland credits Jake Gyllenhaal, Dwayne Johnson and Sally Hawkins, amongst others, for the excuses they have provided for taking on disabled roles in recent years.

Colleran’s performance not only makes us guffaw, but also makes us fume as Frankie works hard to maintain her serenity under duress.

This is a well-trodden topic, sure – but one that continues to beleaguer the disabled community, with the latest celebrity stuff-up of the casting in Sia’s Music (apology now finally issued) only a few weeks behind us. We’re all rolling our eyes in time with Colleran’s Frankie as we remember past blunders and shudder at what the next high-profile slip-up will be.

But we have to feel sorry for them, don’t we? If these poor celebrities can’t crip up, how on earth will they get their mitts on a shiny Oscar for the mantelpiece? Aw, bless their Hollywood-hollowed hearts.

How Do You Make A Cup Of Tea? by Kellan Frankland is streaming on YouTube as part of Graeae’s Crips Without Constraints Part 2, with a new play released each week on Tuesday at midday, until 19th February.