Rose loves her brother Mikey. Mikey loves Rose, even if he has a funny way of showing it sometimes. They both love their mother, but when she dies from leukaemia, twenty-something Rose and autistic teenager Mikey’s world, and their relationship, suddenly and drastically, changes.
Plastic Figurines, which opened last night at London’s New Diorama Theatre, doesn’t sound like it’s going to be funny, does it? But it is. It has some beautifully hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments that perfectly capture how absurd living with autism can sometimes be.
Why on earth would anyone eat cucumber? It tastes “like water and grass and leaves a bit”. Rose (Remmie Milner) doesn’t really have an answer to that, it’s just.. a thing that people like to eat at funerals.
When someone helps themselves to too many sandwiches, why would you call them a pig? Pigs don’t really eat that much. Call them a hamster, Mikey says. Hamsters eat loads. That makes much more sense.
If you’ve had a close relationship with someone who’s autistic, you’re likely to experience this two-hander in a very different way to those who haven’t.
Those surreal, funny, moments of odd behaviour are pretty easy to deal with. You have a giggle, and often you learn a new way of thinking about something, a new way of describing or seeing the world that’s often so much simpler and more honest than your mainstream mind has thought of before.
When Mikey (Jamie Samuel) accidentally gets chocolate on his fingers, or breaks a vase, he screams and cries with heart-breaking agony, and it’s those moments that many of us will find impossible to understand.
Young writer Ella Carmen Greenhill avoids sentimentality and isn’t afraid to explore Rose’s frustration.
Rose admits that, when she was younger, she felt shame and embarrassment about her brother. However much she loves him, it’s clear that there’s also resentment that she’s had to come home and care for him.
There’s a beautiful scene where Rose tries to persuade Mikey that the expression ‘wheelchair people’ is wrong, while he’s insistent that it’s much shorter, therefore much more logical than ‘people who use a wheelchair’.
In Mikey’s world, offending other people doesn’t really factor into his words or behaviour.
He has absolutely no idea why a hospital dinner lady might get annoyed at being told she’d served his meal wrong. Mikey only knows that chips next to peas is not correct. The scene where he hurls the most awful insults at his sister again and again, oblivious to her distress, are shocking.
Greenhill does, however, avoid the assumption that people with autism are completely incapable of empathising with others.
When Rose, trying to stay calm and collected and prepare for her mother’s wake, realises she’s made an insane amount of sandwiches, Mikey knows exactly what to say to make it better.
Over a brief 70 minutes, Plastic Figurines explores the siblings’ current relationship, and in slightly confusing flashbacks, darts back to moments from childhood, and to the weeks prior to their mother’s death.
Samuel has clearly done his homework, his line delivery and lack of eye contact both subtle enough to avoid being a stereotype.
Milner’s always pulling herself back from her limits, struggling to remain calm – for her own sanity and her brother’s happiness – in a wonderfully complex performance.
Greenhill’s emotional rollercoaster of a play is based on her own experiences as a carer for her own autistic brother, following the death of their mother.
She’s created a bravely authentic, personal, and hugely enjoyable work that allows for both great honesty and deftly avoids clichés.
Plastic Figurines is at the New Diorama until Saturday and then touring.
2015 tour dates
April 14-18, New Diorama, London
April 21, The Old Town Hall, Hemel Hempstead
April 22, The Met, Bury
April 23, Hull Truck
April 24, Square Chapel Centre for the Arts, Halifax
April 25, The Atkinson, Southport
April 28, Whitby Hall, Ellesmere Port
April 29, The Mill at the Pier, Wigan
May 1, The Civic, Barnsley
May 5, Harrogate Studio Theatre
May 6-7, The Lowry, Salford Quays
May 9, Derby Theatre
May 12, Walker Theatre, Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury
May 14-16, Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Emlyn Williams Studio, Mold.