Review: ‘The Big Things’ by Mike Heath — Little Niggles with Big Questions

When the image of lone jigsaw pieces suddenly emerge before my eyes, I am normally left with a mixture of exasperation and dismay that it’s autism once again that is the unfortunate flag-bearer of this misplaced object (you can read more why I have such gripes about its usage here). It happened again just some days ago, when a tweet came unexpectedly through my Twitter notifications for a play I otherwise had no knowledge of its existence previously, let alone its basic premise. Below was that design which accompanied the play’s publicity…

The original poster for the production.

If seeing blue jigsaws floating was enough to stir some feeling of chagrin, then seeing the name ‘Autism S($)peaks’ also tagged into a selection of names, largely from those of us who were connected to Channel 4’s ‘Are You Autistic?’, should be more than enough to dissuade that it would be of genuine interest to give the show my attention. But yet, I ultimately opted to watch ‘The Big Things’ in person at its home in Barons Court Theatre and try to suspend my personal bias once seated to focus what was on show. More said about my own motivations at the end.

The play is steered by Grace (May Cunningham) and Malcolm (Matthew John Wright) where we witness the many tribulations, and occasional flickers of hope, of their relationship and the impact of parenthood for a mother that struggles profoundly to build a bond with their son, Matthew (there is no actual baby/child present, if you were wondering). I will state there was much to applaud with both Cunningham and Wright as performers, whose own efforts helped to construct a sense of realism and sympathy for characters which are sadly encumbered by the melodramatic direction of the plotline as it unfolds.

Barely after 10–15 minutes in any whiff of joy from the relationship rapidly dissolves. Becoming parents dramatically changes the entire course of the show’s tone. I could only conclude that rather than being love’s young dream, their marriage was one of self-destruction and where Grace, who discovers more about her own identity in the course of the performance, does little to impress in besides being autistic poses its obvious challenges and any greater depth that goes beyond little difficulties was markedly amiss.

There are moments where the character does bring some glimmers of sharp wit and even warmth from scenes where perhaps most necessary, but with a high number of scenes that oscillated from the extremes of being distressed or at odds with her husband and the callous manner of referring to her son insistently as ‘it’ as her favoured pronoun, it failed to strike any sort of even-handed presentation of light and shade when it comes to being autistic. One might have supposed that a co-occurring diagnosis, to explain her detachment, could have illustrated convincingly that autistic people are also vulnerable to additional complex health needs. An alcoholic parent, who contextualised Grace’s earlier life and was directly referenced several times, might have explored unresolved childhood trauma that is distinct from any autistic behaviour. As it was, autism was judged to be the only cause of most ills in this instance. The consuming desire to be ‘normal’, combined with an improbable deficiency for any kind of empathy, is left to be challenged by her husband and that in itself is more of a pity.

Even with diagnosis, there never seems to be a turning point where it was possible to better appreciate her differences and identify support. Far from that, the marital problems spiral further whereby Grace is increasingly trapped in a depression, aided by heavy medication, that even by the end her downcast view of life in sum is the abiding impression most of all. Hardly a comforting thought for audiences to perceive about autism and especially where women with the condition are still easily overlooked.

Now, it would be right to believe that individuals such as Grace do exist in society — whether they are autistic is another debate. I can only reflect the context of my own life experience, where I am not married and have no children as it stands, so I may be rightfully challenged in some respects. However, for a drama piece written by a neurotypical and, as far as I understand, portrayed by non-autistic actors, there is a significant duty to ensure that as far as autism is interpreted, it requires to be judiciously represented and to not promote a notion that being autistic and a parent too are somehow contradictory.

In seriousness, if there is no authentic autistic presence, either on stage or at least behind it, then it is locked into a charade of blindly staging any known autism myths and inadvertently or not, tends to inflict more harm than good. I watched ‘The Big Things’ as I’m naturally curious and want to believe that the arts in general is picking up pace as to how autism is beginning to see a fairer deal from literature, TV and theatre, as well as not solely estimating its credibility just by the cover I saw initially. However, in the end, and much to my own disappointment, still fell short of what can only have improved upon my earlier misgivings.

The second poster that is now used for promotion.

There are signs that the production can, with some collaboration with autistic parents and individuals alike, still have its potential realised. Some encouraging outcomes have come about already with the disappearance of the blue jigsaw imagery over recent days and that being overhauled. An important story is there to tell, but with the chaotic, tempestuous love story and misguided handling of autism in its state now, there is a need to reflect how this piece can reinvent itself on to a clean slate.

N.B. I purchased a ticket to watch ‘The Big Things’ at a standard performance and (tweets excluded) was not encouraged or invited by the theatre or production company to attend/review.

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