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Neal Pike’s Five Years at Camden People’s Theatre | Review

Neal Pike. Five Years - Photography by Chris Bishop.
Neal Pike. Five Years – Photography by Chris Bishop.

Neal Pike, by his own admission, has a stutter. He’s even been told he shouldn’t be on stage because of it. But as he’s telling his own story, having natural hesitations in this monologue couldn’t fit the character better – because (at the risk of sounding pedantic) the character is the man, and the man is the character. Five Years chooses as its timeline a period in Pike’s life that I wouldn’t avoid like the plague if I were to – hypothetically, mind you – write an autobiographical play. But at least he pretty much puts to bed the old adage that ‘school days are the best days’, and if my own secondary school experiences are largely if not wholly better best forgotten, Pike’s story is very much in the realm of triumph over adversity.

There’s little, if anything, that surprised me in the narrative, because school playgrounds and classrooms can and are relentlessly vicious places. No wonder, then, that Pike finds solace in a PS2 or otherwise simply letting his imagination run wild – the video projections portraying the latter were helpful. And I couldn’t help wincing as he asks at the school dinner table for his classmates not to wind him up on account of a family bereavement: his may have been a special educational needs school, but it was still an open invitation for yet more taunting and the sort of personal remarks that these days would probably be posted on social media.

What could easily have been quite a furious proverbial middle finger raised at the education establishment is instead a largely warm and inviting journey through a pivotal period in Pike’s life, and he is able to find (albeit in retrospect) humour in some of the events recounted. The story isn’t all about what happens (and what doesn’t) in school – there are some insights into Pike’s home life too. There are some good punchlines in the script, including one about school assemblies laced with “religious bollocks” and another about how he started the Harry Potter books by reading the third one in the series and consequently finding it all confusing.

It is startling that only five per cent of people who attended an SEN school are in paid employment of any kind, and when he mentions it, it is the only point at which Pike is resolutely indignant without restraint. Put simply, statistically speaking, the boy done good, and has even created Britain’s first writers collective and network for disabled and D/deaf writers, ‘Tentacles’, based in Nottingham. Pike has the kind of story not heard often enough. It’s a short play, but an impactful one. I wouldn’t exactly say, ‘Stutter? What stutter?’ but the interruptions never last long and, once you get used to them, they’re totally unproblematic. A confident, assured and hopeful performance.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Based on Neal Pike’s memories of life at a special educational needs (SEN) school, Five Years uses poetry, storytelling and direct address to explore an adolescence shaped by being marked ‘disabled’ owing to his stutter. Directed by Matt Miller, this sharp, subtle and brutally human solo show questions the limited expectations others had for a child with a stutter. Five Years is a work about refusing to conform to those ideas, reaching for a life beyond the one teachers and parents had planned for him, and keeping hold of a sense of self during turbulent times.

From 1998-2002, poet and performer Neal Pike was a pupil at Foxwood, an SEN school in Nottinghamshire. At once a show about the uniqueness of SEN schooling and the commonalities of teenage experience, Neal describes Foxwood as being both difference to other schools and, in many ways, exactly the same. Filled with 90s references and often painfully relatable anecdotes, the piece explores how our school experiences help shape the people we grow up to be, for better or worse.

FIVE YEARS
Presented by Neal Pike & Matt Miller
Fri 15 – Sat 16 Nov 2019 at 9pm
https://www.cptheatre.co.uk/

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