I was waiting one Saturday morning for the train to leave the station – I happen to live near a terminus station – and a young man, without warning and without saying a word, held out a piece of plastic wrapping in my direction, as though he were expecting me to get up and find the nearest bin. Before I could remonstrate, or even politely point out that I was not his personal slave, his companion quickly told him to go with her, and he would put his own rubbish in the bin. She was constantly giving him instructions, to mind out of the way of the pushchair, to not press the emergency stop button when there is no emergency, to come away from the doors as everyone was waiting for him to stop obstructing them so they can close and we can depart.
She did all this without the slightest sliver of frustration or anxiety, and prefaced everything she said with his name, Joshua. Never Josh, let alone ‘mate’, ‘buddy’ or ‘pal’. I could not say whether Joshua is on the autistic spectrum – to do so would be placing a value judgement on someone based on appearances – but it seemed likely that he is. Here, Hannah Brooks (Rachel Hammond) tells of her formative years with her two brothers, one of whom, also called Joshua (and never Josh or anything else), has personal needs that take priority in the family home. A regimented set of ‘rules’ – inverted commas mine, as the actual word ‘rules’ is not used in the play – means there are stringent limitations on what social activities the family can do together, and even what they would have for supper. To stray from this intricate web of dos and don’ts risked incurring Joshua’s wrath, with a severe emotional, psychological and physical strain on other members of the family.
As ever with a single-perspective narrative, the audience is denied exposure to other points of view, particularly in this case that of Hannah (and Joshua’s) mother, who is evidently pulling all the stops out to meet her children’s needs. It is interesting, nonetheless, to observe Hannah’s struggle when she first moves into halls of residence at university – finally, at liberty to do what she pleases with whom she pleases (within reason, of course, and within the law of the land), she literally doesn’t know any better. Conditioned to structure her Saturday evening meal in a certain way for as long as she can remember, she feels obliged to continue the ritual. Joshua, on the other hand, having been on the receiving end of specialist treatment in the United States – a damning indictment of the availability and effectiveness of treatment and interventions at home – is increasingly open to changes in previously very rigid routines.
Hammond puts in a tour de force performance, progressing her character from prepubescence to young adulthood, and provides the audience with some actor-musicianship, on strings, brass and keyboards. If a drum kit could have been accommodated in the small performance space, I suspect she would have been very proficient on that as well. A voice recorder allows her to create a discordant atmosphere for narrative purposes. The level of detail in each scene makes this story very individualistic, not in a narcissistic manner, but subtly making clear that while there are many stories of people having to deal with a sibling with autism, this one is Hannah’s. A thoughtful and engaging production that tells the kind of story not heard often enough on stage.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Mission statement: understand Joshua’s world.
Hannah lives by the seaside with Mum, Dad, and two brothers, Ben and Joshua. The brothers are very different. Ben lets Hannah in his room, they play spies together, and, sometimes, he even gives her a hug. These things aren’t possible with Joshua. It’s like he speaks a different language.
We have to learn about each other’s worlds, says Mum.
Full of laughter, love, and original music, Joshua (and me) explores what it’s like to grow up in a house where, however loved you are, your needs are not your family’s first concern. As Hannah grows, so does her understanding of Joshua. We journey with her from seven to eighteen, when it’s time to leave home. But Hannah’s life has been moulded around the needs of her brother: “I don’t know who I am if I’m not his sister”.
How can she find her way in a world where no-one knows, or cares, what it’s like to be Joshua’s sister?
Joshua (and me)
8 – 19 February 2022
WRITER & PERFORMER: RACHEL HAMMOND
DIRECTOR: LUCY JANE ATKINSON