Joe Dennis
Joe Dennis
Salford Arts Theatre

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Entering the Salford Arts Theatre is a bit disconcerting. The rear wall of the stage is full of black and white sketches of adolescent subjects—Spider-man, The Batman and the TARDIS—but these spill off the stage and are hung around the theatre and left on seats. It feels like intruding on something which is highly personal.

Tides is autobiographical based upon author Joe Dennis’s personal experiences of autism. The play displays rather than verbally describes the main signs of autism: problems with social communication and interaction, restricted or repetitive behaviours and hypersensitivity. Author Dennis plays Dylan Ward, an autistic individual, who, as the play opens, carefully arranges toy action figures in order of size. In adulthood, Dylan faces challenges in his profession as he struggles to achieve the tolerance of other people’s foibles required in his work at a call centre. The play runs through key events in Dylan’s life from childhood to COVID.

There is a knowing tone to the staging. A David Attenborough-style voiceover describes and comments upon Dylan’s behaviour as if he is a member of some unique tribe. A drumming noise, which one had assumed was intended to demonstrate Dylan’s difficulty in coping with outside stimuli, ends when Dennis steps out of character to say it is getting annoying. Dennis repeats this approach, seeking audience opinion on whether he is going too far in foreshadowing events.

Tides is self-aware rather than self-pitying. Although the traumatic impact of insensitive teachers and tedious work is depicted, so too is Dylan’s response, which is likely to alienate other people. Dylan has difficulty socialising, and his efforts to fit in range from, as a child, repeating whatever the other person has just said to, as a teen, trying too hard and behaving overbearingly like the irritating life and soul of the party. There is even a calculating aspect to Dylan’s personality, as he is aware his employer will be reluctant to fire him for fear of appearing ableist. Joe Dennis does not spare his own embarrassment, at times providing what audiences might think is too much information on his early sex life.

The objective of Tides is more to raise awareness of issues associated with autism than to entertain. The events depicted are not unusual enough to be dramatically noteworthy—most people have experienced parental loss and unsympathetic teachers. Tides is, however, a deeply honest play, the limited drama arising, in many cases, from Dylan's over-reactions exacerbating situations. Confronted by an employer demanding to know why he did not declare his autism upon the employment application form, Dylan replies the form required ‘disabilities’ to be listed and he does not consider autism will prevent him from completing his work.

Tides is less a plea for tolerance of people with autism than a wider demand for greater consideration of everyone’s needs. Joe Dennis argues if we were more sensitive of the requirements of everyone we meet on daily basis, there were be no need to single out people with autism as requiring special consideration.

Tides avoids sensationalism to give an understated and highly personal presentation of the complexities of autism.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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