BLOG Sophie BaggottNWR Issue 110
Touch Blue Touch Yellow Chapter Arts Centre
'Touch Blue Touch Yellow' had an instant, hard-hitting impact. A boy hovered near the doorway, jutting forward every so often to call 'hello face!' as people entered the theatre. The audience’s seats bordered a rectangular space where the young boy sat, span around, and scrutinised individuals close-up. These opening minutes wasted no time in dissolving any boundaries.
Tim Rhys’ new drama focuses on a ten-year-old autistic boy, Carl, and his caring, despairing parents. Though Carl is lovably sweet, his intensity comes across immediately. As the elder sister of a boy much like Carl I found aspects of the character development fascinatingly familiar. His social struggles are just a fraction away from reality and Joshua Manfield plays the leading role with precision. The script has no clear-cut start, but dialogue begins with Carl’s mother trying to teach him how to recognise emotions. Infinitely patient, she takes him through a ‘happy’ smile and an ‘angry’ frown. Slow progress is made.
It soon becomes clear that Carl’s father lacks this much-needed patience. Fraught moments with his son had my stomach in knots more than once. Carl’s trembling right hand (a repeated, self-protective motion called ‘stimming’) is a near-constant source of embarrassment to his father, whose concern with appearances breeds tension throughout. One early exchange between father and son, at typical cross-purposes, gives a tragic insight into this anxiety. While Carl chatters about the prospect of going to a classmate’s party, his father insists on seeing an invitation before resignedly saying there wouldn’t be enough cake to go around were his son to attend.
Also woven into the script were extracts of poetry written by the playwright’s wife, Tracey Rhys, about their own autistic son. 'Like coaxing a bird to sing,' Carl’s mother recites at one point, touching on his aversion to small talk. In fact it is her son who prompts his mother to sing back a tune, note for note, in a poignant scene during the first act. Carl’s frustration with her very slight dissonance spotlights autism’s typical pedantry.
Elsewhere in the play his father’s lament, 'my perfect boy subtly reflects a different kind of obsessiveness. Unlike his wife, he sees Carl’s alleged imperfections as elements that could be 'cured'. This leads to the enlisting of a ‘professional’ to train Carl into socially acceptable behaviour via punitive measures. The man treats the child like a dog, pushing him to 'sit', crooning 'good boy', and shoving him to the ground when Carl resists. Yet this distressing scene is still only a muted version of how autistic people have been treated by ‘professionals’ such as radical behaviourist BF Skinner (1904-1990) to whom the play briefly alludes.
Carl’s most beloved subject, outer space, crops up again and again. He is full of incredible facts about the solar system: 'On Saturn, it rains diamonds,' but his attempts to relate to his colleagues through this topic fall flat. Carl increasingly relies on an online chat-room, staged by blue spotlighting, where other autistic people gather. Sadness echoes in all their conversations, and towards the end these take an even more heartrending turn.
This play’s particular strength lies in how the playwright has drawn on personal experience to create a moving drama without oversentimentality. 'Touch Blue Touch Yellow' strikes an effective balance between fact and fiction; Rhys harnesses an opportunity to raise autism awareness while also keeping up a thoroughly engaging script. I hope Carl’s story goes far.
is on the MA Journalism course at Cardiff University. Her next blog will review NTW's Christmas family production in Cardiff, 'The Insatiable, Inflatable Candylion'
'Touch Blue Touch Yellow' was written by Tim Rhys, directed by Chris Durnall, and showed at Chapter Arts Centre from 1 until 4 December. It was produced by Winterlight, a sister company of Company of Sirens
, artistic director Chris Durnall.
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