At the start of each of the six short pieces which go to make up Crip Tales, an announcement comes up on screen “written, directed and performed by disabled people”. In an ideal world this would not, of course, be a necessary declaration as it wouldn’t even be a consideration in the first place. However, this world is far from ideal and in order to celebrate the 25th birthday of the Disability Discrimination Act the BBC have commissioned this series of brief dramas. Actually, I’m given to wonder why they had to find an anniversary to peg it on – couldn’t the plays just have been aired as a matter of course? However, that niggle aside what they have come up with is an intriguing look into a world which most of us cannot remotely begin to understand.
Mat Fraser curates the series and writes and appears in the first piece Audition. In what would seem a highly autobiographical tale he waits outside an audition room musing on the many times he has sat outside others and not got the role largely because of preconceptions about what he can and cannot do based on physical appearance. It is a situation with which many actors (able or disabled) can empathise but the humorous tone of the play contains a serious point. That being a disabled actor means that you are put into a particular pigeon holed category which merely goes to reinforce the point I made above. The piece has the air of a confessional as indeed do many of the others.
In Thunderbox by Genevieve Barr, we are taken back to the 1960s where Ruth Madeley is sitting in something that actually looks like a church confessional though it turns out to be a toilet at a music festival (if it is, it’s a remarkably clean one!) where she has gone to contemplate her sudden pregnancy and think about getting an abortion which has only just been made legal. This is probably the most harrowing of the pieces as we are drawn into listening to a decision that is not going to be easy whichever way it goes. Also taking us back in time is Hamish by Jack Thorne (the highest profile writer in the sextet). This time it’s the early 1980s when self-operated wheelchairs first came into existence. Although the cost of one is prohibitive, a combination of parental generosity and proceeds from the local meat raffle combine to provide Hamish (played impishly by Robert Softley Gale) with some new found freedom. He sets out on an adventure but things don’t quite go to plan. This is a delightfully unusual piece which although containing humour also educates. As so often the monologue form is used to get to the innermost thoughts of the character and to articulate their inner turmoil.
The master of the modern monologue, Alan Bennett is channelled in The Real Deal by Tom Wentworth, specifically A Lady Of Letters recently revived by Imelda Staunton. Like Miss Ruddock in the latter, Meg (played by Liz Carr) watches the neighbours from behind her curtains and decides one of them, White Vest, is up to no good and that he needs to be reported as a benefit cheat. Wentworth’s piece exposes the iniquities of the elaphantine assessment system where claimants are better off exaggerating their problems rather than being honest. White Vest teaches Meg a few valuable if morally dubious lessons and we are invited to share the latter’s dilemma as she wrestles with her conscience and the injustices and humiliations doled out by those in power. This dark and witty tale was, for me, probably the highlight of the series.
Another character at the mercy of the system is Carly Huston in the play The Shed by Matilda Ibini. This time it involves one of the very people who should be assisting her when her carer, Ellie, disapproves of a burgeoning relationship and starts to manipulate and block progress on that front. At first this is a relatively subtle process but eventually there are serious consequences; this was quite a disturbing tale. Another character in a dilemma about a new relationship is Jackie Hagan in her self-penned Paper Knickers. Here the central character is facing amputation and wondering how that will affect her chances of bonding with her new found love interest. Rather more upbeat in tone, despite the subject matter, Hagan’s play has some laugh out loud lines and a nice line in self-deprecating humour.
This series of monologues can be enjoyed either as a “box set” or savoured more individually and are due to remain online for a year if you prefer to take your time. Why not make them a focus for viewing on International Disabled Day (December 3rd)? Though maybe we should, by now, not need to be in a position where a proportion of the population have to wait for a designated day in order to make their voices heard…. and that, of course, is where I came in.
Crip Tales is available on the BBC iPlayer– click here
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