This review was originally written for Yje Reviews Hub : http://www.thereviewshub.com
Following a lengthy tour beginning in 2015, Manchester based theatre company Box of Tricks is bringing back its production of Ella Carmen Greenhill’s 75-minute play Plastic Figurines for a four week London run. The production’s success seems to confirm a recent trend which has seen the “difficult” subject of autism become box office and the reasons for this play’s popular appeal are very clear to see.
The National Theatre’s huge hit The Curious Incident…, centring around a teenage boy with autism, is essentially plot-driven, but this play, with a very similar teenager at its centre, is entirely character-driven, putting a much stronger focus on the writing and the performances. Rose has returned from Edinburgh to her family home in Manchester to take care of her autistic younger brother Michael when their mother becomes terminally ill. Written in non-linear form, the play takes place around the time of the mother’s funeral and Michael’s 18th birthday.
Vanessa Schofield juggles dedication, frustration and tolerance in a beautifully judged portrayal of Rose. She knows that her affection for her brother cannot be reciprocated outwardly and, touchingly, she expresses hurt that, when Michael smiles, it is meaningless, being just something that he has been tutored to do. Nature has determined that she and her brother will look at life from very different perspectives, but we always sense that her actions in caring for him are driven by love more than duty. Her approach to living relies on common sense, but, for Michael, everything has to be orderly and rational. The writer is very astute in picking out the trivial issues over which clashes arise, such as Michael’s inability to blow out the four candles on his birthday cake because the correct number is 18. The clashes are sometimes humorous, often sad.
Michael;s insistence that he is different but not stupid is realised perfectly in Jamie Samuels’ carefully nuanced performance. He needs face cards to explain the meaning of people’s expressions, but he has learned to moderate his behaviour, even conceding an argument to his sister when he is certain that he is right. Samuels gives the character dignity, but the actor’s biggest triumph is in suggesting that, although the natural ability to express emotions is missing from Michael, the emotions themselves are still there inside him. This strengthens the feeling that sibling bonds can transcend the handicaps of autism, bringing themes into the play that are reminiscent of the film Rain Man, and Samuels may well settle for being compared with Dustin Hoffman at this early stage in his career.
Katie Scott’s austere hospital waiting room set reflects the simplicity of Adam Quayle’s production, which for the most part, keeps the drama restrained. The effect is to heighten the impact of flash points when Michael becomes hysterical or Rose’s exasperation erupts. Simplicity is the keyword, because Michael is not presented as a savant and both characters are shown to be ordinary people leading everyday lives, doing their best to meet the challenges laid down before them. It is this that lies at the heart of the play’s considerable appeal.
Performance date: 28 September 2016