Protesters rallied outside Southwark Playhouse this week to condemn the use of a puppet to portray an autistic child in a play at the venue.
The campaigners stood outside the theatre on February 18, which was press night for All in a Row, holding placards and handing out leaflets as audience members entered the venue.
Written by Alex Oates and directed by Dominic Shaw, the play tells the story of a couple with a child who is described as “autistic, non-verbal, and occasionally violent”.
The leaflet handed out read: “We believe that both the script and the use of a puppet dehumanises autistic people.
“The play has been criticised by both the National Autistic Society and leading disability and autism rights activists. A petition [to pull the play] has been signed by more than 14,000 autistic people.”
It added: “The play is inaccessible to us (with only one autism friendly show) indicating that the company has no interest in engaging the autistic community in dialogue.”
The protest was organised by performer Paul Wady, who is founder of autistic theatre company Stealth Aspies.
Theatre companies Graeae and Hijinx, which both work with disabled artists, also previously criticised the portrayal of the autistic child in the play for being “dehumanising”.
A spokeswoman for the company of All in a Row said: “All in a Row is based on Alex Oates’ experience as a carer and explores the reality faced by families that he worked with during this time.
“Our aim with this play was never to cause offence and we absolutely respect people’s right to protest. We understand there will be differing opinions on the creative decisions we’ve taken with this production, but we hope that people will engage with this and welcome a conversation.”
Southwark Playhouse released a statement on February 12 addressing concerns about the play, which 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.”