Ella Carmen Greenhill
Box of Tricks
New Diorama Theatre
It is Michael’s 18th birthday and his sister Rose has produced a birthday cake complete with candles but he doesn’t see the point in blowing them out. When he does and wax falls on top of the icing, he refuses to eat it, even though she reassures him there isn’t a layer of the jam he doesn’t like. He’s a difficult young man to deal with but he is being totally logical. His brain responds to facts not feelings.
In Ella Carmen Greenhill’s play, Michael suffers from autism and she writes not just from research but personal experience for she has a half-brother on the autism spectrum. Like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, her play shares something of what it is like to be autistic and the effect on those close to them but does it very differently, concentrating on the relationship between these siblings.
Rose is already on stage when the audience enters the theatre, nervously waiting in a hospital corridor. It is a situation with which she is perhaps over-familiar, waiting to see doctors and social workers, for clinical assessments and support claims, but designer Katie Scott’s setting also serves as other locations from the home that the two share to seats at the cinema as the action moves backwards and forwards it time, but wherever she is she may subconsciously be always nervously waiting for Michael to break down in panic when he can’t cope with things.
Rose was living her own life in Edinburgh but had to return to Manchester to care for her brother when their mother went into hospital with leukaemia. The scenes move from before her mother’s death to after the funeral, not always chronologically, which could be confusing if the emphasis was not so strongly on their relationship. We see Michael losing it, being what seems spiteful and abusive, but he’s being honest even though it makes Rose lose her equilibrium.
Jamie Samuel (who created the role when this production was first staged) gives an outstanding performance as Michael with his precise memory for facts, his dissection of exactly how many minutes it will take for each stage of his travel to the cinema, his obsession with Ninja turtles and his insistence on truth: he won’t play Cluedo with Rose when she admits that she will lie as part of her game play. It is a performance that helps you identify with someone who gets upset because the colour of his plastic toy turtles has faded yet can take the death of his mother with equanimity.
Vanessa Schofield now plays Rose. She makes you aware of the sacrifice she has made of her own life in taking on this family responsibility. Frustration sometimes breaks through but we see the love that she feels for a brother whose regimented rows of soft toys she used to sneak in and re-order when they were younger. It is a love that doesn’t get the same response back from a boy who has had to be taught to recognize feeling from a chart of facial expressions.
Plastic Figurines is both revealing and moving and touched with humour. It helps you understand something of autism and the problems it raises. Adam Quayle’s direction beautifully handles the way in which Rose eventually brings herself to read the letter her dying mother wrote to her with Michael taking over as their voice of her mother. Especially moving is a poem that Michael has written for his mother’s funeral.
Both play and production steer well clear of sentimentality. Like Michael’s brain, they stick to the honest and truthful.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton