(with a heart on top)
An authentic piece that taught me more about autism than any book or youtube video ever could. And it delivered it in such a visually and choreographically delightful way, that truly felt like a deep mental journey rather than a learning experience. A brilliant piece of writing by JJ Green!
Right after getting out of the Turbine Theatre onto a sunny street, I wrote in my Instagram story that this play made me FEEL things. Written in caps, because it’s not every day that a story that’s not a romantic one makes you almost cry in a public place.
Neurodivergence: is the term for when someone’s brain processes, learns, and/or behaves differently from what is considered “typical”
Neurotypicality: a term that’s used to describe individuals with typical neurological development or functioning
I figured out, that there were 2 factors of “A-typical Rainbow” that make this play so brilliant: 1) Remarkable visual storytelling that opens a completely new door to understanding an autistic person 2) The – completely new to me- description of Applied Behavioural Analysis, a a harmful ‘therapy’ which looks to “decrease” undesired traits in autistic children and adults, but has instead been found to increase symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As a neurotypical person myself, I was never exposed to topics like these before, and it moved me from the inside to see this story on the stage of Turbine Theatre.
Meet The Boy and his A-typical Rainbow
The story of A-typical rainbow follows the life of a Boy. We meet him when he was just a kid, struggling to communicate with his parents and other children. That’s when we also get to follow a doctor’s appointment, leading to a diagnosis: Asperger’s syndrome (nowadays more broadly known as Autism). This diagnosis and its repercussions will later follow Boy’s teenage years and career, but also love life.
JJ Green, in his debut script, draws a realistic portrait of parenting in the ’90s, when the internet was not yet a common resource, so parents had limited access to knowledge, scientific research, or ways to communicate with other parents in a similar situation.
Meet Boy’s Parents
This story is not just of Boy. It’s just as much about his mother, who tries the best she can to make the best possible decision in the situation. It’s also about the father, who struggles to understand his son and seems the most emotionally lost of the three. It’s finally about neurodivergent people and the way the rest of society sees them: should we push them into the “boxes” that are acceptable in our society, or is there some other way we can live in a society together while allowing them to express themselves? (that’s where the dreadful ABA is mentioned)
That perfect mix of straightforward and metaphorical
Many questions, but somehow, the play skillfully touches all these topics while not moving into “serious” or theoretical. Instead, we get a kind of comedy, enhanced by Boy’s spot-on observations about the rest of the world around him. I especially enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek comparisons of how people during the lockdown, while wearing masks, faced similar communication issues that a neurodivergent person faces every day. The lack of structure being as scary as being a train that has no scheduled stops and schedules, hit me right in the heart. Simple yet effective way to explain this to a person that lives in a neurotypical bubble like myself (ugh, I should talk to people who cross bubbles like these more often!).
For me, “A-typical Rainbow’s” impact on my emotions was down to 3 things:
Brilliant script and dialogues by JJ Green. The story flows freely, combining the real world with the imaginative one while keeping them separate. The dialogues highlight emotions but do not sound fake or overly melodramatic. There’s a strong empathy that I have slowly built for The Boy, without even realising it – and that’s exactly what a good script should achieve in case of a play like this one.
Flawless staging – my jaw almost dropped to the floor when fairytale-like creatures started appearing on the stage: wolves running in a dark forest, flying birds, and even a huge, moving dragon. The cast of 4 creates pure magic on the stage and makes full use of every single space available in the Turbine Theatre. The massive rainbow covering the front of the stage plays a role of an emotional “thermometer” of the Boy’s feelings – changing the colours depending on the situation (“Gold is the best”, as we learn)
Legitimate team of actors and creatives, with a real understanding of what it means to struggle with neurodivergence. This show screams (or rather wispers) authenticity: JJ Green included some of his personal experiences in the show, while also making sure to involve people with experience of Autism in their families, or with some kind of own mental struggles. The production included a set of adjustments in their rehearsal process and creative processes, to accommodate everyone’s needs. I’ve read it all in a compelling interview with JJ Green, you can find it here.
Caroline Deverill (Mother) brings lots of warmth and stability into her character. Her openness to Boy’s ideas about himself is so touching, especially that in the ’90s an absolute love like this was not as easy. There were no online sources or an easy way to connect with others on forums. Deverill paints a picture of exactly that – a mother who tries her best but also realises the limits of her knowledge and awareness.
James Westphal as Father (and Doctor) seemed just way too real. Growing up in the ’90 and also having a father that came from an army background and was the “tough lad”, I could reminisce about my dad in his creation. Westphal’s Father loves his son but is clueless about his own emotions and ways to deal with Boy’s “atypical” interests. He is this hard-shelled character, but with real feelings hidden on the inside. Such a complex creation!
And of course, JJ Green himself. He skillfully juggles the audience’s emotions: from his almost stand-up comedy moments (and tongue-in-cheek comments) to deeply emotional moments of sadness and feelings of being lost. He makes the play, with an already fantastic script, even better. His character is the guide for everyone in the audience: he opens the window to Boy’s mind and lets everyone stay there and discover some hidden corners. Then he elegantly closes the window as the play ends.
Let me just add I focused on the three leads, but the whole cast was amazing and I wish I could write something about everyone. I’m just afraid for a blog post, it could be slightly too long of a comment. But please take my highest praises!
A-typical Rainbow – summary
It’s probably the play that impacted me the most this year – it made me happy, it made me sad, and it made me google like crazy once I got home, just to find out more about the issues covered by the play. After watching “A-typical” rainbow I feel a strong need to educate myself and to continue asking questions about neurodivergence. At the same time, I had so much fun watching it! This is a play that should get much more spotlight – it’s worth it. Five stars from me, that’s for sure!
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