Spoonface Steinberg

Lee Hall
Jermyn Street Theatre in association with Glasgow Citizens Theatre
Jermyn Street Theatre

Lucy Hollis as Spoonface
Lucy Hollis as Spoonface

A spotlight shines on a pair of sneakers on a stool that poke out from beneath a crimson curtain. Is this a piece of little-known Beckett never before encountered or some imitation? The auditorium darkens and the feet pull back, they reappear upon the floor beside the stool then are back on the stool again and then a head with dyed red hair pops underneath the curtain.

It is an elaborate and jokey overture that slightly misfires (you can see that those are wrists not feet that wear the shoes) but its sets the pattern for director Max Barton’s production of this Lee Hall script that started life as a radio play in 1997. He’s not prepared to place his trust in the actress and the words and overloads it with lighting changes, business and elaboration.

Spoonface is an autistic little girl who is good with numbers but not so hot on words and reading: she tells us so herself. “I’ve not been right since I was born”. This is one of those plays in which theatre provides the gift of skills to share thoughts with an audience with an articulacy that real life would deny her. While other children like Take That, she listens to “proper” music. She is passionate about opera: she has Callas singing Visi d’arte and Casta Diva on her headphones. “If I ever grow up,” she says, “I’ll be one of those sad singers”

Lucy Hollis gives Spoonface a disarming, open-eyed innocence and her sudden actions and distractions—kicking her doll off a stool, for instance, scattering a plastic alphabet—match well the pattern of the autism spectrum. They do so without derailing her communication and there is a fresh objectivity about the way she tells her story.

Dad is a lecturer in philosophy and mum was studying for her PhD as well, but then Spoonface came along and instead of gaining a doctorate mum found vodka—and dad a floozy. She acts it out with soft toys and Barbie dolls, a big cuddly dog for daddy. But there is just too much illustration: a toy telephone for when she mentions a telephone conversation, a bed pushed around and curtains drawn when she goes into a hospital for examination. It too often breaks the audience contact. Sudden darkening of the stage makes no clear point and doesn’t help either; the audience needs to see the actor’s eyes.

Not only is Spoonface autistic, she has a killing cancer against which radiotherapy and chemotherapy don’t seem to be winning. That, it is suddenly clear, is why she has the scarlet hair: a wig to cover her hair loss. She is clear-headed about the doctors’ negative prognosis. She pragmatically considers the plight of a little girl in the concentration camp her doctor talks about: a girl made to watch her mother murdered. Spoonface Steinberg: of course she herself is Jewish—and she goes on to question ideas about God and his intentions.

There is a moment of withdrawal; Spoonface curled foetus-like in bed in half-light which is particularly moving. It has a tragic dimension, though would be even more effective if this lighting state had been absent earlier, but here a deliberate lack of contact is reinforced by inactivity.

Just once or twice Lucy Hollis makes Spoonface consciously little-girlish in her contact with the audience but this helps when correcting an audience misunderstanding: their applause at what was a false ending—but was this an intentional joke on the director’s part (or even the writer’s)? It felt more like misjudged timing on the part of the production.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton