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Review: If These Spasms Could Speak

Image: Pleasance

As Robert enters the stage and greets his audience - I see what an enjoyable hour this is going to be. Having wanted to see the production because of it's subject matter, as my relationship with my body has changed since suffering from my now chronic illness, I realise it's much more than it's subject matter.

Robert quickly establishes himself as the perfect performer for this show - disabling (no pun intended) any preconceptions from the outset. As he quickly and directly addresses his speech impediment, imploring us to ask him to repeat something if need be - and saying he sounds like Laurence Olivier in his head, it's clear why this show falls under the comedy category.

If These Spasms Could Speak explores the stories of disabled people, and their relationships to their bodies - as well as addressing other people's reactions to them. Robert's own stories and thoughts are interspersed with others who have shared their stories with him - their backgrounds and situations varying vastly.

We hear, not just the science behind Cystic Fibrosis - for example how the feet are furthest from the brain and so most difficult to control, but also how it is to live with. This is something that is not often shared with such honesty and clarity.

There are plenty of funny moments such as a celebration of one woman's body-confidence as Robert cheekily proclaims "I love my tits", or when a wheelchair-bound mother gets her own back on her unruly teenage daughter by getting her bedroom door removed, and then there's Robert's preference for aesthetically pleasing personal assistants.

These funny moments are interspersed with more introspective accounts - addressing the worryingly everyday stigma faced by those dealing with disability. To live with conditions such as Cerebral Palsy is surely difficult enough without being treated, not just cruelly but oddly - as people stare, without recognition or self-awareness of doing so.

Through these stories we see how people with disabilities so often become treated as an outsider - as someone who either attracts attention or the need for care, without a reasonable middle ground. Even within the medical profession, if attending with a friend for their problem - they become the focus of attention and questions.

As the questions, provided by a voiceover, become more intrusive - we see how ridiculous it is that there would be a presumption as to the individual's willingness to share information - such as on their sexual abilities. With no empathy in place - the disabled individual then becomes someone to be looked at and spoken to, but not on the same level.

A poignant moment arose as Robert spoke of the feeling that he never expected to be alive at this point. He'd misbehaved at school and never chosen dreams to pursue because everyone had told him there wasn't any point. It was interesting to hear this unique perspective on both life and mortality. A presumed "carpe diem" attitude replaced with carefree rebellion - because how would you maintain that otherwise?

By going into, what could feel like, an uncomfortable level of detail about a sexual encounter we feel empathy for a situation that may have been previously unconsidered. There's this odd, unfounded presumption of asexuality in the disabled. To hear of unfulfilled desires, or a self-esteem crushing moment of asking a partner to support his head during a sexual act - we see how alive the sexual drive is - and yet how complicated the execution of that can be, especially with the inevitable awkwardness of a new relationship.

All of these are stories that need to be heard. By honestly addressing the everyday issues of disabled people - he takes the focus away from the disability. He gives these people a voice: a voice that may be cheeky, or sexy, or sad - but it is three-dimensional, which is so much more than could be said of most media portrayals of disability. There's no mystery, awkwardness or unease - just real people telling their stories.

This is another example of a Fringe show which tackles what could be a difficult subject matter with ease, charm and humour.

The finale is joyous, as the projection, previously used for images of those Robert portrays, becomes overloaded with words as to how these people define themselves. This looks both at and beyond their disability - words that encapsulate feelings of inadequacy but also confidence and beauty. It is a celebration of honesty and variety. We see the flood of mixed feelings these people face on a daily basis - no doubt resonating with many in the audience, disabled or not.

Some of these stories made me reflect on my own situation - suffering with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome.

For a long time, before my treatment progressed and settled, I was suffering from blackouts everyday - often a few times within a day. I was, what felt like, constantly falling and flimsy - with the unpredictability of my losses of consciousness meaning I quickly lost my independence.

This meant that I often faced people seeing me in situations I'd rather they didn't - unconscious on the floor: completely unaware of who was looking at me, and how. I also had to learn to ask for and accept help.

My whole life changed, and I had to learn how to deal with it - quickly. Somehow, I did - and maintaining my sense of humour aided that. Some people found that difficult, believing a serious situation required a serious attitude - but, as Robert shows - maintaining your personality is key, and that he certainly does. He is cheeky and charming - and completely admirable in both his work - and his bravery in (successfully) attempting to eat spaghetti bolognese on a first date! Genuinely very impressive.

This is an important show - again, a phrase that is often accompanied by a pre-conception of the "serious" nature of the work - which it is, in the issues it discusses, but it is also a funny, at times - hilarious, and uplifting production, that you need to see if you can.


If These Spasms Could Speak plays at the Pleasance Courtyard at 5.45pm until 26 August.

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