Get our free email newsletter with just one click

Graeae and Hijinx criticise ‘disappointing’ use of puppet in autism play

Southwark Playhouse will now accept donations in Bitcoin Southwark Playhouse
by -

Leading theatre companies that work with disabled artists, including Graeae and Hijinx, have criticised the decision to use a puppet to portray an autistic child in a new play at London’s Southwark Playhouse.

The comments come as a petition criticising the portrayal as “dehumanising” and calling for the play to be cancelled has reached nearly 9,000 signatures.

Alex Oates’ All in a Row, directed by Dominic Shaw, tells the story of a couple whose child is described as “autistic, non-verbal, and occasionally violent”. It opened on February 14, with press night on February 18.

Ben Pettitt-Wade, who is artistic director at The Stage award-winning company Hijinx, which works with actors with learning disabilities, said: “Without seeing All in a Row, it’s impossible to provide a comment on the production’s merit.

“However, we would mention that we think it’s far from impossible to cast a neurodivergent actor [such as a performer with autism] in a role such as this one. At Hijinx, every one of our productions stars actors who are neurodivergent and/or have learning difficulties.”

The company also tweeted that the use of a puppet appeared to be an “unimaginative artistic decision”, and invited the producers to a meeting to discuss the benefits of casting a performer with autism.

Graeae Theatre Company, which works with D/deaf and disabled artists, tweeted: “This is certainly very disappointing. At Graeae, we are always pushing for fair and authentic representation of D/deaf and disabled people. Producers, artists, writers and casting directors all have responsibility to ensure genuine portrayal on stage and off.”

A spokesman told The Stage that the company did not wish to comment further having not yet seen the play.

Learning-disabled theatre company Access All Areas also tweeted that it believed “neurodivergent roles should be played by some of the excellent neurodivergent performers working in the industry”.

A petition started online by a user called Frances D called for the play to be pulled, stating: “Unfortunately, this play is causing distress to many autistic people, including me. Why? The only autistic character is being represented by a puppet. All of the other characters are portrayed by human actors.”

It adds: “Dehumanising depictions of autism hurt all autistic people and affect our daily lives. The common misconceptions that we lack feelings and empathy are profoundly harmful.”

Southwark Playhouse released a statement on February 12 addressing concerns about the play.

It said: “The writer thought it was essential the character of Laurence, the child in the play, was represented in the piece but felt it inappropriate for the creative team to cast a child, autistic or not, in the role.

“This was in the interest of child protection: the themes and some dialogue in the play are of an adult nature – also there was a desire to honestly depict the challenges of caring for someone with Laurence’s particular behaviour and needs, which meant portraying a certain physicality that would be unsafe for a child performer.”

Clare Williams: Neurotypical actors playing learning disabled is as bad as blacking up

Want to continue reading?
Support The Stage with a subscription

We believe in fair pay for everyone who works in the arts, and that includes all our journalists and the whole team who create The Stage each week.

As a family-run, independently-owned publication, we rely on our readers' subscriptions to pay journalists to produce the informed and in-depth articles you want to read.

The Stage will always strive to report on great work across the country, champion new talent and publish impartial investigative journalism. Our independence allows us to deliver unbiased reporting that supports the performing arts industry, but we can only do this with your help.

Continue reading our quality content and support its creation with a subscription from just £4.49 →