Theatre is an incredible medium for exploring new worlds, and A-Typical Rainbow‘s Boy (played by the show’s autistic writer, JJ Green) has several of them inside his head. He dreams of swimming with mermaids, flying with dragons and running with wolves, but in the eyes of doctors practising the harmful procedure known as Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA), his autism risks holding back the progression required to ‘fit in’ with the rest of society. A desperate mother agrees to try the ‘therapy’, and in so doing, the witty and meticulous Boy is forced to question whether suppressing a part of himself is truly the healthiest and safest thing to do.
The 140-minute play references and draws inspiration from the National Theatre’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time extensively. The lifting up of Boy from other characters as he details his dreams of mermaids and jungles is straight out of Frantic Assembly’s playbook, there’s the same tense relationship between the protagonist and his father, and dragonfly puppets and glowing light displays replicate the hit production’s multi-sensory experience. This is compounded by an arching set design combined with vibrant lighting from Frankie Gerrard and Bethany Gupwell respectively. The benefit here in comparison to the National’s production, however, is that these scenes are being crafted with the involvement of autistic people. There are more parallels than you can shake a garden fork at.
Though to only view A-Typical Rainbow through its similarities with Curious (which has long been considered an ‘autistic’ play despite neither the adaptation or Mark Haddon’s original openly stating he has the condition) is to be incredibly reductionist. Green’s tale expands outwards as much as it delves into introspection – a commentary on an allistic (that is, ‘non-autistic’) society in addition to introducing the autistic mind. As Boy deals with the devastating medical abuse under ABA, Mother (Caroline Deverill) is both literally and figuratively juggling the many plates which come with being a parent, and Father (Jason Westphal) soon reveals his own struggles with toxic masculinity.
The play’s criticism of uniformity is its most potent and compelling: how is assimilation sustainable if ‘blending in’ means different things to different people? The coronavirus pandemic is the unexpected case study to hammer home the point that “we can’t keep bending towards each other”. The argument for living authentically has never been so perfectly put.
A lot of that comes down to the most beautiful, poetic writing from Green, rich in metaphor, simile and symbolism – ironic, certainly, given Boy’s confusion over the phrase ‘raining cats and dogs’ and his adamance over the difference between the literal and the figurative. Adapting Father’s push for his gay son to take an interest in army soldiers into the pressure to mask or ‘camouflage’ in a neurotypical (non-neurodivergent) world is smart, smooth and effortless. Boy’s descriptions of his imaginary worlds are vivid and enthralling. In acting his own words, it’s emphatic that Green has a story to tell – one which draws from his own experience.
The same goes for Deverill. A mother of an autistic child herself, she nails the anguish which comes with wanting the best for Boy in a way which speaks with aching realism – acted in a monologue free from pity because “God knows the autism scene has heard enough from moms about that”. In questioning what exactly is development for her son, she is faced with the toughest possible choice. The ‘trap’ which parents can fall into in terms of seeking the right support is explored candidly, finely towing the line between honesty and frustration which makes a case for these difficult – although flawed and disastrous – decisions being made out of love and compassion, rather than a desperation for change. As mentioned above, the play questions exactly how achievable ‘change’ is, whilst also explaining just how difficult a concept is to autistic people.
Yet it must be stressed that there are upbeat moments in amongst the raw emotion. The ridiculing of ‘maybe’ in a flight safety demonstration is hilariously absurd and Green delivers comedic lines with a natural rhythm. There’s light and dark – perfect for a Boy who doesn’t understand grey areas and instead sees the world in technicolour.
Gold, he tells us, is “rare” and “good” – fitting words to describe a glowing production full of heart. It’s rare because it’s not often we see neurodivergent actors playing neurodivergent roles, because we hardly ever see narratives about autism which are free from the restrictive binary of inspiration or pity, and because autistic joy is typically absent from plays about autism. A-Typical Rainbow is refreshing, intelligent and tremendously transcendental.
A-Typical Rainbow is now playing at the Turbine Theatre until 7 August.
A relaxed performance will take place on 20 July with a captioned performance running on 28 July.
Production Images: Pamela Raith.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘A-Typical Rainbow’ for free as a member of the media in exchange for a review of the press night performance. While I know JJ Green personally, all opinions stated above are honest and my own, and I did not receive payment for this article.