Touch Blue Touch Yellow
Touch Blue Touch Yellow is the second part of a trilogy of plays from Winterlight, exploring themes around autism. The first, Matthew’s Passion, suffered from soap-opera-ish plot elements and a lack of focus on the ostensible central character. Author Tim Rhys makes no such mistakes here.
In a piece written for the Arts Scene In Wales web site, he discusses myths about the portrayal of autism in drama and makes clear his intention, as the parent of a child who is on the spectrum, to reflect the struggles and triumphs of sufferers and their families. Thus, Touch Blue Touch Yellow has an autistic adult, apparently living a “normal” life, reflecting on episodes from his childhood.
As the audience wanders in, we are greeted with a cheery “Hello, Face!” by Joshua Manfield’s Carl, who is sitting on the floor in a performance area whose design—by Georgina Miles—is sparse, consisting solely of a handful of low tables. He tentatively approaches individuals, seemingly “collecting” their expressions.
The contrasting approaches of his parents are cleverly sketched. His mother—Stacey Daley—communicates with him by attempting to enter into his world and aiming to change his perceptions from the inside. On the other hand, Carl’s father—played by Jams Thomas—although no less affectionate, focuses more on trying to fix the awkward and embarrassing external manifestations of his condition.
This is reflected in his engaging of a therapist—Dafydd Wyn Roberts—who specialises in a behaviourist approach to treatment. The play’s title refers to the painful process of teaching a client to recognise and respond to coloured panels as a means of starting to understand more complex stimuli, like facial expressions.
This therapy scene, with tough love meeting frustrated incomprehension, is one of many arresting moments. Carl’s father’s weary explanation that his son cannot attend the party he is keenly looking forward to, because he hasn’t been invited, since his school-mates think he’s weird, is heart-breaking. And scenarios in which people with whom he is interacting suddenly break into gobble-di-gook, as their perfectly normal conversation becomes incomprehensible, are particularly striking.
Perhaps the most illuminating segments, however, are those in which Carl interacts, online, with other autistic adults, illustrating the diversity of approaches which they adopt to themselves, one another, and the confusing world outside their heads.
Importantly, Carl is not a savant. A childhood obsession with dinosaurs gives way to an interest in astronomy which allows him to display knowledge which is impressive but largely derived from books (his battered copy of John Gribbin’s Stardust is always at hand). It also provides a useful metaphor for Carl’s journey through a baffling universe.
Without the technical resources of more high-profile depictions of autism to call on, Chris Durnall’s direction, assisted by Janes Lalljee’s evocative lighting design, focuses on the performances, which are all excellent, Manfield particularly impressive as the exasperated and exasperating Carl.
The frequently witty text is augmented by the elegant and emotionally resonant poetry of Tracey Rhys, which is reflective of parental uncertainty in the face of a diagnosis of autism. If the play has a fault, it is that this uncertainty extends to the conclusion of Carl’s narrative, which may be affirmative or pessimistic or both.
In any case, Touch Blue Touch Yellow is a sobering insight into the lives of autistic people and those who love them.
Reviewer: Othniel Smith