‘Just Be Normal’ at VAULT Festival review – Sisterly spat over autism says so little

Two neurodivergent siblings argue over OCD and autism in this rough, repetitive and redundant debut. While its representation of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is refreshing in rooting it in a lack of rationality, the implication that OCD and autism are almost identical is less heartwarming in the sense of two people sharing a similar experience, and more deeply troubling.

It’s suggested throughout with the constant regurgitation of the descriptions for the two conditions (Sophie Jackson has OCD, and older sister Emma is autistic), both of which share a similarity around “repetitive patterns of thought and behaviour”, but little else. The lack of lighting to distinguish whom voiceover characters are speaking to doesn’t convey a shared perspective, but rather blurs the lines as to who exactly we’re supposed to be focussing on. Emma’s endless recital of being unable to “blend into the world beautifully” is just as grating.

Unfortunately, the plot is equally cyclical. Sophie snaps at Emma, says some hurtful things, kicks her out of her room, Emma has what appears to be a meltdown, and they temporarily make up. In the middle of all of this is one particular teacher who makes some unbelievably hurtful and personal comments about the Jackson family, and Sophie’s inconsequential relationship with her boyfriend. Even if it is based on true events, the amount of times Emma appears in outlandish costumes – including an inflatable alien suit at one point – strikes me as making her character the comic relief in the play, rather than one of significance.

It also doesn’t do a lot when so much of the story is just people being mean about neurodivergence. Sophie is just endlessly cruel to Emma, complaining about being her “PA and her therapist”, up until the very end of the story, when there’s an abrupt truce and a closing monologue with the basic message of “be kind”. For the play to conclude in such a way – when we spend the whole hour willing Sophie to be a lot kinder to her sister – is simply stating the obvious, and an insult to our intelligence. Just Be Normal could have said and explored a whole lot more.

Just Be Normal is now playing at VAULT Festival until 17 March.

Production Images: Akimbo.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Just Be Normal’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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