Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 23 October, 2007

From many writers, a play such as this might seem like an uncharacteristic attempt to play the sentiment card by disabled-led theatre company Graeae, who normally have no truck with judgements such as "excellent, considering...". But one of the strengths of Richard Cameron as a playwright is that he is unashamed of sentiment without ever tipping into syrupy sentimentality. He is interested in how the mostly disabled women of the Crippleage in Edgware got on with each other, the world and themselves, but in exactly the same way that he is interested in any other group of people he writes about. So, while Joan (Sophie Partridge) may allow herself to be fleeced by an art teacher in one strand of the action set in 1965, or Lily (Karina Jones) invent a fake history of her blindness to make herself more worthy of her young Royal Navy beloved in 1940, Sally (Sonia Cakebread)'s neurosis about fire and Rose (Lizzie Smoczkiewicz)'s yearning to belong are largely unrelated to their physical conditions.

The Crippleage was one of those institutions that combined genuine philanthropy with the inescapable whiff of the workhouse. Whilst the women's work of making and selling hand-made flowers was intended to foster independence, they lived cheek by jowl in plywood cubicles where curtains gave some protection to modesty but none to privacy; the concern that led to its foundation did not extend to its design, with "fourteen stone steps [leading into] a factory with nigh on two 'undred 'andicapped women." Wartime brought its own privations, with the factory converted to turning out rivets, and resources in such scarcity that young Alice (Nicola Miles-Wildin) cannot obtain a new leg calliper, although the new air raid shelter offers a chance of illicit assignations. And the fact that the two plotlines are set a generation apart is, of course, significant.

Peter Rowe and Jenny Sealey's production (under the joint auspices of the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, and arriving in London at the end of a short tour) is less formally adventurous than most of Graeae's recent work that I have seen. (Early this year, their revival of Sarah Kane's Blasted rediscovered the challenge of that work's vision.) But it serves as a reminder that Issues with a capital I matter, not as abstract principles, but because they apply to individual people.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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