Fringe REVIEW: The Sparks Factory @Sweet Werks 1

Spencer Charles Smith May 21, 2018

Sparks Fly in How Disabled Are You?

I WAS lucky enough to catch the final night of The Spark Factory – a festival of bold and risky new work taking place within the Brighton Fringe and curated by Spun Glass Theatre. The week-long festival included a range of artistic disciplines, from puppetry to spoken word to musical cabaret, and concluded with a brand-new piece of verbatim theatre by Brighton-based writer/performer The Queer Historian: How Disabled Are You?

Caveat: The aim of The Spark Factory is to share work in all stages of development, from polished perfection to promisingly pubescent, so what I’m writing now is less of a theatre review and more of my first impression of a very exciting new project.

How Disabled Are You? uses text written by anonymous contributors to explore various attitudes toward the benefits system in the UK and those that rely on it.

These contributions – or confessions – come from people currently living on benefits as well as people who find great joy in reporting individuals they suspect are committing benefit fraud. We’re never told any information about the contributors (i.e. age, gender, location) and only hear their written words spoken by the three performers onstage: Helen, Jade and Nicola.

What’s quite special about this show is that the performers are not given the text beforehand and essentially present a ‘cold reading’ to the audience, which made it a treat to see each performer react genuinely to what they were reading.

There were points in the show when the performers were visibly shocked but had to maintain their composure in order to finish the reading. As an audience, we witnessed some incredibly human moments onstage. And I extend that to the very powerful spoken-word poem (pre-recorded by Tommy) that concluded the show.

I’ve heard Tommy’s poetry several times now and it’s truly exciting to watch his creative focus shift and change, and hone in on very raw and exposed emotion.

There were two aspects of the show that felt a bit clunky to me, that I feel need revisiting in its next iteration:

1) The introduction at the beginning was a tad heavy-handed and spelt everything out to the audience before the show even started. For instance, explaining that the brown envelopes containing the performers’ text resemble the brown envelopes that arrive in the post and contain the details of one’s benefits. That’s a great idea, but let us as an audience make that link somewhere throughout the show.

2) As a fan of verbatim theatre, I have admired the work of Moises Kaufman and Anna Deavere Smith for many years; I even performed in a production of Smith’s Twilight: 1992 many moons ago.

The element of verbatim theatre that I missed most during this performance was characterisation. The beauty of verbatim theatre is working with imperfect and unedited speech from real life people, and with that comes a spectrum of characters with their own unique speech patterns and mannerisms. What we lose by having the performers simply read a piece of text onstage is much-needed variation, theatricality and three-dimensional characterisation.

Beyond the discussion of benefits, How Disabled Are You? tackles a number of difficult topics rarely explored in mainstream theatre – mental health, chronic illness, class, ableism and systematic stigmatisation in Britain – which is why a full-length production needs to be made. There is so much potential for this show to connect with the public, to educate and to initiate conversations that too many people are too afraid to have.

I hope to see a fully realised version of How Disabled Are You? in next year’s Fringe.

Reviewed by: Spencer Charles Smith

Date: Thursday, May 10, 2018

Venue: Sweet Werks 1