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All in a Row review at Southwark Playhouse, London – ‘a sensitive play marred by a wrong-headed decision’

Simon Lipkin, Hugh Purves and Charlie Brooks in All in a Row at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Nick Rutter
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Alex Oates’ All in a Row is an uncomfortable show, in two different ways. Firstly, on a dramatic level: its presentation of a couple tearing themselves apart over the future of their autistic son is acutely raw.

And secondly, on an ethical level: the company’s decision to depict said son as a puppet, no matter how much care has gone into its conception (plenty, as a programme note makes clear), is decidedly wrong-headed and has understandably angered autistic people and organisations, who believe the decision was insensitive.

Over 90 minutes, on PJ McEvoy’s open-plan kitchen-sitting room set, Oates traces another stressful evening in the lives of technology entrepreneur Tamora, stay-at-home husband Martin, and their severely autistic son Laurence. Their last evening as a family, in fact, before Laurence leaves for a special school full-time.

Bitterness reigns. Accusations abound, with social worker Gary and his restless ward caught in the middle of it all. Rachel Sampley’s lighting design pulses with pent-up emotion.

Under Dominic Shaw’s direction, the play is a highly-charged and occasionally profound examination of the turmoil and trauma involved in raising an autistic child. Shaw draws smart, if slightly overblown performances from Simon Lipkin as the viciously resentful Martin, and from EastEnders’ Charlie Brooks as the addled, alcoholic Tamora.

The whole thing is tarnished, though, by the puppet-son. Grey and unsightly, it doesn’t work on a practical level, even before you enter the ethics of its inclusion. What’s particularly bizarre, is that there’s no apparent reason the part couldn’t have been played by a person anyway. A sensitive play then, marred by a stupid decision.

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A sensitive play about living with autism, spoiled by an insensitive casting decision