STILL NO IDEA: THE POLITICS OF DISABILITY IN BRITISH THEATRE AND FILM
Still No Idea, presented by Bunny and written by Lisa Hammond, Lee Simpson and Rachael Spence, is an insanely funny show that succeeds at both lampooning and drawing serious attention to the social, cultural, and political realities of living and working with disabilities. It is authentic, hilarious, and devastatingly relevant.
"You know, when I set out to write this play, I really didn't want it to be about disability," says Lisa Hammond to the audience towards the end of the two-woman performance of Still No Idea. The play's premise is simple: without any ideas of their own, Rachael and Lisa turn to the public for help and inspiration, accompanied only by a single question "if you were to see us two in a play, what do you think it would be about?". Whatever the British public says, goes: no backing out, no changing the plot, no altering any aspects that they don't like.
The answers are predictably entertaining and cringe-worthy at first: from the misogynistic 'I wouldn't expect two women to be funny' to the loud patois cries of 'Sister sister!' of two South London girls to the mother of an autistic child insisting that there's absolutely nothing wrong with wheelchair users, Lisa and Racheal provide side-splittingly funny impressions and caricatures of the Great British Public. But a darker quickly trend emerges from the funny: even though Lisa is bombarded with a deluge of comments about the 'cheekiness' of her face and the potential extroversion of any character she might play, all plot suggestions eventually end up focusing entirely on Rachael's character. Again and again, Lisa and her stories are left to the side, forgotten or unmentioned, while Rachael dates doctors, becomes a dancer, and solves the murder of mysterious high school friends. It is here that we catch our first glimpse of the message that Still No Idea is really trying to put across: that things aren't better for disabled people, in the world of film or theatre or in life in general.
This shift from raucous to sombre is gradual and intelligent. The excellent writing especially shines during the parts of the play dedicated to the struggles of getting a storyline as a disabled actor (like on a show that definitely isn't Eastenders). There are still elements of humour, but the serious undertones are the sort to really make you sit up in your seat. The interviews of fellow disabled actors add a confessional tone to the final third of the play, followed closely by an incredibly poignant scene in which the names of dozens of disabled British men and women who have died due to the incompetence or neglect of the DWP. Despite what body positivity movements or identity politics may have us believe, things, argues Still No Idea, are absolutely not better than they were ten years ago: visibility and representation in media like Channel 4's Superhumans or the Malteaser adverts are hurting rather than helping disabled people. Disabled actors are still the first to get cut, even when in non-disabled roles, disable people without Paralympic abilities are made to feel less-than, and - most importantly - disabled people across the UK are still dying.
Hammond and Spence have worked together for years, and it shows: not only is the writing of Still No Idea witty and well-suited, there is also a genuine connection and an authentic female friendship that shines throughout the performance. The pair play off and with each other superbly, both as improv actors and as purveyors of observational humour. There is a poignant political message and an excellent point made that most abled-body theatre goers would never even think twice about. It's important work, done well.
Still No Idea plays from the 11th to the 12th of November 2019 at the Southbank Centre.
Image credits: Southbank Centre & Camilla Greenwell