Informative but not necessarily engaging: Paul F Cockburn reviews Mind the Gap’s theatrical exploration of learning disabilities and parenthood, currently playing at Summerhall, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Around 2% of people in England have a learning disability. Around 7% of them are parents. Around two in five (40%) of those − but possibly as many as nine in ten (90%) − will have had their children taken away from them by social services.
Those are some of the statistics behind this touring production from Bradford-based Mind the Gap. This isn’t, however, a show about statistics − not even when we get to “the science bit,” explaining how learning disabilities can be passed down the generations through our genes. It is very much a show about people, not least the parents with learning disabilities whose stories are cut ’n’ pasted into the show.
Created by Mind the Gap’s Resident Director Joyce Nga Yu Lee, Mia: Daughters of Fortune is certainly open about its subject matter, launching with a “Dear Diary” montage in which the four cast members make it clear that having a learning disability doesn’t stop you from fancying someone, or even having sex with them.
Nor does it blind you to popular culture − be that Disney’s Cinderella or a sexually-choreographed Britney Spears video. It’s all too clear, however, that society’s default assumption − or prejudice − is that people with learning disabilities won’t be able to cope as parents. “In their eyes you’re always a failure,” is one quote that resonates throughout the show.
Mia may be theatrical, but it’s certainly not a traditional play. Instead, it’s a series of non-linear episodes − varying in length, form, and pace − which results in a sometimes energising melange of stage work, choreography, recorded audio and video, and live camera work. While they’re pretty much working in an empty space with just a few props and a mobile video screen, you can’t say that cast members Alan Clay, Alison Colborne, Anna Gray and JoAnne Haines don’t ensure there is plenty to see and hear.
Yet how effective all this theatrical “sound and fury” actually is though, is questionable; the erratic shifts in performance styles ensure it’s hard to empathise with the linking characters. While fake game show ‘Don’t Drop The Baby’ is initially amusing (and, indeed, makes some very good points), it does goes on just that little bit too long − especially after it drags out reluctant audience members to take part.
Mia’s main argument is that parents with learning disabilities face a real struggle against an often-inflexible system − possibly well-intentioned, but equally perhaps prejudiced − in order to keep their children, and that it’s taken many years of campaigning to improve their chances of doing so, even now.
“We just want to be sure you and the baby will be safe,” a concerned social worker says at one point, but you do wonder if that’s just code for somethings else. Do all parents-to-be have to meet a supposed list of 344 parenting skills? Sadly, Mia never quite joins up the various dots sufficiently well to spell-out ‘discrimination’, which feels a bit like a punch being pulled.
Mia: Daughters of Fortune is part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe every day (except Mondays) until 27th August, at Summerhall (Venue 26). It will tour in Autumn 2017 and Spring 2018 with performances already confirmed at Hull Truck Theatre (Hull), The Gulbenkian (Canterbury), and Square Chapel Arts Centre (Halifax).