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All in a Row at Southwark Playhouse | Review

Simon Lipkin as Martin, Laurence operated by Hugh Purves and Charlie Brooks as Tamora in All in a Row. Photograph: Nick Rutter
Simon Lipkin as Martin, Laurence operated by Hugh Purves and Charlie Brooks as Tamora in All in a Row. Photograph: Nick Rutter

It’s not often a play causes so much controversy – even an online petition to have it pulled – before it even opens. But this has been the case with Alex Oates’ production All in a Row which has received its world premiere at Southwark Playhouse.

This is the story of Tam (Charlie Brooks), Martin (Simon Lipkin) and their eleven-year-old son Laurence (Hugh Purves (Puppeteer). Laurence is severely autistic. His autism is so bad that he can only communicate in a series of grunts and a form of sign language and, in addition to his parents, needs the assistance of a paid carer, Gary (Michael Fox). The parents love their son and cope with his condition in their own way. Tam is a high flying entrepreneur and motivational speaker who likes to relax with a glass of wine at the end of the day, while Martin is a stay-at-home dad who allows his mind to wander, often with a little stimulus, and has weird random thoughts, for example, his idea about a new direction to take Disney movies is definitely thinking out of the box. Gary and Laurence have a good relationship but even a professional like him he can be caught off-guard by the lad when he has one of his episodes. But now, everything is going to change. Laurence is going away to a new school. This isn’t Tam and Martin’s idea, but is the result of an intervention by Social Services reacting to a tip-off that something was amiss with Laurence. On the night before he is due to go, Laurence is doing what he loves, eating pizza and watching Finding Nemo, while the adults prepare for a future without him.

Alex Oates has written a hard-hitting and very emotional story that really examines the lives of people coping with a severely autistic child. All of the characters are fully developed and very believable, as is the overarching situation they find themselves in.

Let’s start with the main topic of controversy, the use of a puppet to portray Laurence. I’m not going to get too heavily involved in this but I would say to those that have raised their voices in anger, please go and see the play before you rush to judge. I honestly believe that no child actor – whether autistic or not – could do everything that is demanded of Laurence in the play. It is an amazingly intense role in an extremely intense and emotional play. Puppeteer Hugh Purves is absolutely fantastic as Laurence, bringing the boy to life and making the half puppet – live and breathe and exist as a person. When watching, at times it’s really easy to forget that Hugh is there, so well is his and the cast’s interaction with Laurence. And speaking of the cast, the other three are all amazing. Charlie Brooks’ Tam is a hard driven woman and Simon Lipkin’s Martin is a man permanently on the edge, never sure what his son will do and, it appeared to me, feeling some resentment at how well Gary interacts with Laurence. Together the two actors really show the strains that occur in a marriage where, on some level, each blames the other – and possibly themselves – for their son’s condition. Now, I’ve never wanted children or really felt any affinity to people that do, but watching Charlie and Simon’s performance, I was drawn into their world and found myself speculating on how I would handle their situation. Michael Fox has a difficult role with Gary. He is an outsider to the family, paid to be there, but after two years of looking after Laurence, he is a confidant to both parents. Michael makes Gary instantly likeable and it would be easy in the initial part of the play to dismiss the character but, in fact, there are points where it feels like Gary is the glue that keeps everyone together. He is good humoured, sensible and very human – prone to making some interesting gaffs when talking about his thoughts. But underneath all that, Gary is a professional carer and Michael really makes sure that side of him comes across as well. Interestingly, all three characters made some awful comments at times but, while they potentially could offend – and there were a couple of times I had my head in my hands – they ultimately show the humanity of people who have, been in each other’s company for too long.

PJ McEvoy’s open-plan kitchen-sitting room set is nicely used by Dominic Shaw’s sensitive direction which pulls no punches when it has to and the accompaniment of Rachel Sampley’s lights – especially the back wall – and Ben Collins’ sound design really move the emotional lever up to the highest notch as the story unfolds. The runtime is ninety minutes and the time flies by so that I was a bit surprised when we arrived at the, for me, tear-jerking end.

I do think that it is a pity that the row over the casting of Laurence has taken so much of the publicity away from All in a Row. This is, ultimately, a well researched and written story of a family on the edge that delivers an emotional and hard-hitting – if not always comfortable – window into a world we all hope never to experience for ourselves.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

Laurence likes pizza.
Laurence is about to go to school.
Laurence thinks it’s okay to wee on mummy’s pillow.

Like any couple, Tamora and Martin have big hopes and dreams. But when your child is autistic, non-verbal, and occasionally violent, ambitions can quickly become a pipe dream.

In a household brimming with love, resentment and realisations, meet Tam, Martin and Laurence’s carer Gary as they struggle to care for their beloved boy. On the night before social services finally intervenes, who is the victim here? Who was the traitor? And who do you blame when you can no longer cope?

Inspired by his experiences working as a carer for over a decade, Alex Oates’ new play stars Charlie Brooks (EastEnders, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here – winner) and Simon Lipkin (Wind in the Willows, Guys and Dolls) with Michael Fox (Downton Abbey, Dunkirk) and puppeteer Hugh Purves (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Solo: A Star Wars Story).

The team behind the triple Offie-nominated “sharp-witted, effortlessly engaging and surprisingly sweet” (Times) Silk Road brings you the world premiere of a startling new play, written by Alex Oates and directed by Dominic Shaw. All in a Row is a kitchen sink comedy-drama filled with heart… and French Fancies.

Creative Team
Writer – Alex Oates
Director – Dominic Shaw
Assistant Director – Annabelle Hollingdale
Designer – PJ McEvoy
Puppet Designer and Director – Siân Kidd
Lighting Designer – Rachel Sampley
Production Manager – Callum Finn
Company Stage Manager – James-Paul Hayden
Deputy Stage Manager – Zoe Leonard
General Management – Paul Virides Productions

Cast: Charlie Brooks, Michael Fox, Simon Lipkin, Hugh Purves

Recommended for ages 16+

Paul Virides Productions, Evelyn James Productions and United Theatrical present
All in a Row
by Alex Oates
14 Feb – 9 Mar 2019


4 thoughts on “All in a Row at Southwark Playhouse | Review”

  1. I am part of an entirely autistic theatre company. Stealth Aspies. Every member could play Lawrence, at different ages of his life. We have a 23-year-old, 35, 40, 50 and myself at 55. We could all play Lawrence because we all have empathy for him as another autistic person.

    To research it you go and spend time with such people, then you discover yourself with your autistic nature on top of you. It would be that simple for us. Many autistic actors could play younger than they are. It’s called theatre…

    The statement that no one could play the child is nonsense and incorrect. As has been pointed out, it was played by a human in the first place. Did they bring a puppeteer in because he was used to animal puppets?

    1. A part of your response is not correct. In the review, I wrote the following:

      “I honestly believe that no child actor – whether autistic or not – could do everything that is demanded of Laurence in the play.”

      That is my opinion – as it is the rest of the review – and not a statement of fact as you have suggested in your comment.

  2. Other reviews of the show, many by autistic people, have a completely different take on this experience.

    Watching the show will not necessarily make you agree with this review.

    The protest point that a puppet is used to replace an autistic person – played by a puppeteer in case you have forgotten that a human is indeed playing the child and one we believe is not autistic themselves – is not at all addressed in this review.

    One reason being that the play is clearly based towards the experiences of non autistic parents and carers. Characterising us in general as ‘animals reincarnated in human bodies’, to quote the play directly. A child like Lawrence would have character and personality. Violence, behaviours and everything the child does is the communication of a personality.

    Please consider the dehumanisation and objectification of a human being here? If it was a black family, would they have used a gollywog doll? If you do not appreciate how outlawed a trope that is, I suggest you find out.

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