We are seeing more and more theatre companies and artists tackling subjects such as ‘disability,’ mental health issues, and development conditions in British theatre that conversation are quite rightly beginning to emerge of the representation of these aspects. Alongside this, we see great work coming from theatre artists with learning and physical disabilities such as the work of Hijinx, Taking Flight and Theatr Ffynnon in South Wales alone.
Winterlight Productions, at the very least, brings the subject of autism and the family of autistic persons into focus with their latest piece Touch Blue Touch Yellow by Tim Rhys. This needs to be commended in the first instance. Anything that raises awareness, clarifies and/or illuminates such issues must be appropriately applauded for raising such a discussion. It is important both on an artistic and a representational level that pieces like this are viewed, as is the case with all reviewing I feel, with a critical and constructive eye; and subsequently communicated with an equally critical and constructive voice.
Rhys writes from a place of experience in this case being the father of his autistic son. My favourite parts of the writing were the moments where I felt I was seeing a window into the everyday life of this family and the trials they faced on a daily basis. These moments were active: like when see Carl (Joshua Manfield) interact with the autistic community he has found online and they share challenges they face such as having a conversation with a coffee vendor or obstacles at work.
Conversely where the play loses me is in those moments where I sense I am being instructed how to feel. These are the instances where the writing slips into cliché and loosely relatable metaphor and symbolism. Some of this, one could argue, would take minimal tightening to change the text from passive to active, and from loose metaphor to double meaning. Other instances could be omitted altogether such as the constant reminders that this play is about autism. It would seem that the audience and subject matter would be much better served were we presented with Carl’s life as experience and not the articulation of the emotion one may feel when they think about these experiences – as hard as it may be for anyone to separate one from the other.
The staging of the piece by director Chris Durnall works well in opening the space for the more active dialogue in the play to flow as it should. There are representational choices, however, that I would question, such as the decision to have the Mother (Stacey Daley) dressed all in white and presented as an angelic like character. Again I would have preferred to see a more day-to-day representation of the challenges of the family of an autistic child. I am not convinced this abstracted version of Carl’s mother achieved what it was hoped by the company. However, Daley’s performance of what she had to work with was delivered with clarity and confidence.
Another decision that confuses rather than illuminates is to play the therapist character (Dafydd Wyn Roberts) as a villain. It would be appear at this stage of the production that what is being played out is the world as seen from Carl’s eyes, however, the convention was not potent enough to work. It may be more successful to really push the boundaries with these moments on an aesthetic level.
The cast in general were strong here with some really lovely moments from all players. Joshua Manfield as Carl was particularly good playing the part with sensitivity and the energy required to maintain the temporal shifts in the play.
This was a production that has the potential to be interesting and illuminating. However, in its current form it doesn’t push the boundaries far enough to express the world of an autistic child for its multifaceted qualities.
Presented by Winterlight @Chapter Arts Centre
Directed by Chris Durnall
Read Tim Rhys on writing the play:
Our critic Rita Greenaway writes a parent’s view: http://www.asiw.co.uk/reviews/touch-blue-touch-yellow-chapter-cardiff