Sunday, April 26, 2009

"Spoonface Steinberg" - April 2009

Any play centering on an autistic child as she battles cancer is prime material for reducing an audience to tears, and Zoe Thorne's performance deserves to be recognised as one that may just become the stuff of legend. So why were we left unmoved by it?

Despite being in her 20's Thorne is unnervingly convincing as the eight year old Spoonface - but only a small element of what makes the performance believable is her petiteness. What makes the character credible is Thorne's perfectly crafted mannerisms, childlike expressions and the completely unselfconscious way she moves. And once you add in her distinctive use of language the character is unquestionably real.

Lee Hall's play makes no attempt to shy away from the bleakness of the situation or the less palatable elements that Spoonface has to contend with. However, there is also a lightness that comes from the character's openness and her observations on those around her that ensures the tone is not relentlessly depressing.

There were clearly several audience members in the Citizens Circle Studio who were profoundly moved by the evening - but our tissues stayed firmly in our pockets. Admittedly it does take something extraordinary to leave me biting my bottom lip in the theatre, but Waldorf is a soft-touch. So for a show about a desperately ill child not to have her in floods of tears indicates that something has gone wrong somewhere. We discussed afterwards why it hadn't quite 'got to us' and I'll do my best to provide the best explanation I have.

Part of the strength of Zoe Thorne's portrayal of Spoonface is that she endows her with a genuine sense of disconnection. It's a perfect choice for the character but serves to isolate us from her. The Circle Studio is a very small space and with the set against one of the two longer sides of the theatre the capacity was reduced to around fifty audience members. Yet we didn't feel played to. Any eye contact seemed almost accidental and those on the shorter sides of the space were largely ignored - Spoonface did what Spoonface does, and it really didn't seem to matter that anyone was watching. I've seen children (autistic or otherwise) do exactly this when asked to 'perform' in front of a group, so as a piece of characterisation it was spot-on, but it definitely played a part in reducing the impact it had on us. Although as I say, others were visibly affected.

So for us the evening didn't quite have the punch we were expecting, but that was clearly our personal response to it, and we're still not clear as to why that emotional connection was missing. Thorne on the other hand is clearly a talent to be reckoned with and given roles that she can get her teeth into will no doubt have an extremely bright future.

Spoonface Steinberg is a production by Beggars and Kings and completes an extensive UK tour this week with dates in Wick and Inverness.
Image used with permission.