Review: My Left / Right Foot – The Musical ****

Musicals and Opera

My Left / Right Foot – The Musical

Assembly Roxy, v139

18.10 (ends 27 August, not Wed 8, Tue 14, 21)

**** (4 stars)

A riotous, raucous, rumbustious show, played with enormous zest, with belting songs and an excruciatingly accurate portrayal of the politics and egos of a local amateur dramatic society as they struggle yet again to find and put on a play in the. Scottish Amateur Dramatic Association’s one-act play competition.

Sheena has been directed the past sixteen years’ failures in the competition. Grant is, according to himself at least, a West End actor [has he merely shaken a spear, we wonder?] who is returning to the roots from which he ascended to dizzy thespian heights. Ian is such a retiring wallflower that we wonder how on Earth he would ever have the courage to step on stage. Amy thinks she can direct and make the difference that guides the society to success in the competition. Gillian is the feisty and sexually frustrated young woman who is not slow to speak her mind. Nat has come along to practise her signing in a different and challenging environment. Gavin plays the piano throughout, occasionally comments drily, and is silently indispensable to the show. Quiet and shy Chris, who we first of all see painting the radiator, harbours ambitions to break out of his self-imposed shell, but is being smothered by Sheena, who promised his mother she’d look after him. Amy has read the SADA regulations thoroughly, and points out the paragraph which indicates that extra points will be awarded for competition entries which tackle disability in any way – choice of play, actor, production, etc. This is the obvious path for the group to take and lead them to the heady heights of the SADA final and long-awaited glory. And now all they have to do is decide on a play…

After considering and rejecting a number of possibilities, the obvious choice seems to be My Left Foot, Christy Brown’s moving account of his emergence from the shroud of cerebral palsy and remembered by most people because of Daniel Day Lewis’ Oscar-winning performance as Christy. Grant is convinced that he, an Actor, is the only person to play the part – but when the SADA discover that an able-bodied actor is playing the part of a disabled person, the society risks disqualification from the competition. Can Chris, who has cerebral palsy, and is thus “genuinely” disabled, save the day?

This show’s disturbing qualities rivals for me those of The Underground Railroad Game. Is it a deeply moving depiction of the struggles of disabled people to be accepted on equal terms with their able-bodied fellows? Is it a deeply ironic portrayal of able-bodied people’s complete inability to understand what ‘inclusion’ or ‘disability’ really means? There were so many sick jokes and clichés, and I was unsure whether the audience’s laughter was because they saw the irony of it all, or because they thought it genuinely funny to make fun of people with disabilities. The play’s had rave reviews, has gained a Fringe First award, had the audience laughing, stamping,

shouting, cheering and applauding till their hands ached: and still I’m not sure why.

The whole cast are amazingly talented. The production is first-rate, the songs by turn outrageous, catchy, moving, self-revealing, ranting, explosive and just plain brilliant, and the singing simply awesome as every character [with the exception of Gavin] reveals an inner wound or disability. And I’m still not sure what to make of the show, or even whether I enjoyed it. I appreciated the accuracy of the portrayal of the characters to be found in just about every ‘amdram’ group everywhere: but I’m unclear what exact message the show is aiming to give. Will it change anyone’s attitude to people with disabilities, or will it simply be regarded as a bloody good show, with a lot of fairly explicit language and behaviour and an uplifting finale??

Footnote: next day – having had a fascinating and illuminating conversation with wheelchair-using comedienne Rhona McKenzie, I’ve got some things clearer in my mind. Birds of Paradise Theatre, whose show it is, use both disabled and non-disabled actors: all are incredibly talented and many have invisible disabilities so that you can’t see who is or isn’t disabled – it’s the actor and their talent that defines them, not their disability. The company’s aim is to challenge people’s perceptions of disability, to take them beyond their comfort zone and maybe thus enlarge their understanding by widening their experience. Humour is a much better way of getting over a message than an angry rant: so “we laugh at ourselves and invite you to join us – it’s laughing with, not at” and that’s okay because you’re laughing on our terms. –

Thank you, Rhona!

Mary Woodward