Jo Verrent reviews Mind the Gap's latest touring production
This is the first new show Mind the Gap has produced in three years, and the first produced out of their new base: a fantastically adapted old silk mill in Bradford.
'Boo' emerged from Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mocking Bird, and it focuses on an outsider inspired by the character Boo Radley. But this time, instead of being in the shadows, Boo is played out centre-stage from the front room of the maisonette where Boo and his brother live. Boo, portrayed as autistic by Jonathon Ides (who has Asperger’s syndrome) is trapped within these four walls, hounded by the local kids and repeatedly told to stay indoors by his brother.
Dark, disturbing and mesmerising, it seemed to me that there were four Boo Radleys on stage. As actors with learning disabilities, each one will have spent a lifetime experiencing the marginalisation, discrimination and fear that Boo feels, and for me this gave the piece a chilling depth. In one scene, Girl and Boy are describing the taunts endured by Boo, and trying to distance themselves from words such as ‘spacka’ and ‘mong’, when the very actors themselves face such words aimed right at them. It gave the piece a raw feel, emphasised by the clean set and excellent use of projection to add colour and intensity. The minimalism was a surprise. Many performances by learning disabled actors tend to overload the stage – with strong settings, props and costumes to give shape to the performances. No such support was needed here, with all four performers giving genuine, open and honest portrayals.
Most reviews I have read of the piece so far have focused on Boo and Jonathon’s portrayal, but for me it was his brother, played by Alan Clay, that most moved me. I have seen Alan in a number of productions and, in the past, have found his performance style overblown, often verging on pantomime. Not here. His last speech was delivered deadpan, perfectly paced and pointed… and devastating. Mike Kenny’s writing is often sparse, leaving the audience questioning themselves. Here the writing and the performance combined to leave me, as an audience member, destitute. This was not the ‘happy clappy’ uplifting style of theatre often created by learning disabled companies, but a truly troubling, grown-up piece, which offered no easy answers.
Many people reading this might think I can’t be impartial - after all, I am married to the director. Those who know me also know that this can make me harder and harsher than others towards Mind the Gap’s work.
And there was one element I didn’t like. Instead of using a BSL interpreter on the side of the stage, there was a projected interpreter forming part of the scenery – which when it worked, was great. However, for 80% of the time, the interpretation ran ahead of or significantly behind the performance, making it irritating and nonsensical. So full marks for effort there, and for the commitment to providing sign language interpretation, but a fail in relation to providing access.
'Boo' is challenging, provocative and makes a real statement. It’s very different from Mind the Gap’s previous work, showing a real maturity – in direction as well as in the levels of performance it draws from its actors. If you want to see where theatre with learning disabled actors can go when it frees itself from the need to be ‘happy’, go see it for yourself.