First published in The Times, Tuesday August 20 2019
One of the highlights of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe was the musical My Left/Right Foot from the Birds of Paradise theatre company. Focused on a hapless am-dram troupe’s endeavours to win an award by embracing diversity, the show poked merciless fun at the long line of able-bodied actors being lauded as “brave” and rewarded with Oscars for playing disabled roles.
“Brave” is one of the words that gets dissected in the same company’s Purposeless Movements, part of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival programme. The four men on the stage are professional actors who happen to have cerebral palsy. As they point out in the show’s candid prologue, they don’t want to be viewed as inspirational figures – they just want to be given opportunities to make art.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
The show, scripted and directed by Robert Softley Gale, with choreography by Rachel Drazek, uses text, music and movement to convey the performers’ experiences and challenge perceptions of what it means to have cerebral palsy. The opening segment features a cascade of anecdotes on everything from being mocked at school to attempting connections and finding love.
Much of this is blackly comic. Laurence Clark, a stand-up comedian, recounts his experience of going on a blind date with a woman with cerebral palsy and finding her Glaswegian accent impenetrable. The actor Colin Young describes attending a parliamentary event in his role as a policy adviser and being asked by a government minister what he wants to be when he grows up.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
There is an edge to this humour, though. As Clark points out, there is something wearying about the constant pressure to ingratiate. (“If you’re laughing with us you might be less freaked out by our jerky movements.”) The second half of the show features a discernible shift into a deeper, more reflective mood, including compelling deliberations on the ways in which men with disabilities negotiate their gender identity and sexuality. It is in this section that words give way to Drazek’s careful, understated movement direction as she and the cast rigorously interrogate and send-up the ironies of the show’s title.