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Just A Few Words

Nye Russell-Thompson
Stammermouth
The Other Room, Cardiff
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The second offering in the curated Spring Fringe season at The Other Room is another one-person show, and one which has previously won plaudits in Edinburgh and here in Cardiff.

“Stammermouth” is Nye Russell-Thompson, a graduate of the University of Chichester, where this show was first developed; a piece which has the support of British Stammering Association and disability-arts-oriented programme Unlimited; the issue of whether stammering can be considered an invisible disability being a debatable one.

The focus of Just A Few Words is not the political, however, but the personal. As the light comes up in the bare performance space, the black-clad Russell-Thompson wanders on, puts a needle on a record and walks off again. The tune is a tender love song by Otis Redding, which plays out in its entirety, albeit in a scratched, glitchy, stuttering manner.

Once the song has finished—although the static continues to play for the duration of the hour-long piece—Russell-Thompson returns, carrying a disconcertingly large pile of A3-sized cards, which carry the bulk of the text, to be held up and discarded, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”-style. The show proper starts with him addressing the audience using an obscenity—although, of course, it is nothing of the sort; it's simply an innocent word he's unable to get out in its entirety.

The concept of Just A Few Words is that the protagonist is struggling to speak intimately with his lover, which severely tries her patience, to the extent that the relationship is in a parlous, possibly terminal state. Thus, stammering can be seen to stand as a metaphor for all sorts of deleterious communication difficulties.

The show deals with the specifics of stuttering, however, and various strategies used by those afflicted to cope with it—whispering, filling the mouth with sweets, developing one's performance skills, simple avoidance, etc. The well-known fact that stutterers tend to be able to sing with no difficulty is the excuse for some audience participation, although this too is engineered to founder on the rocks of intimacy.

Just A Few Words is full of frustrating pauses, replicating the experience of those who have to deal with stammering on either side of the equation; and at times there was the feeling that some audience-members were growing restless. This is entirely intentional, of course, serving to focus our attention on the point that however irritating a stutter is to the hearer, the effect on the speaker is several times as irksome.

Russell-Thompson is an amiably self-confident performer and, despite the hour-long show being, obviously, tightly structured, manages to maintain an improvisational mood throughout its duration. As a stammerer of long standing, I found much to relate to, although the non-self-pitying tone of Just A Few Words ensures that the spotlight on the issue is less painful than one might have feared.

Indeed, I would imagine that this subtly experimental piece will resonate with anyone who struggles to express themselves for whatever reason, or is close to someone who does.

Othniel Smith