Have you ever imagined what it would feel like not to be able to read people’s facial expressions? To be able to memorise brilliantly? To be pigeon holed as a type because of your diagnosis? To want to fit in and do normal things that normal people do? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to not lie for the first twenty odd years of your life? To have colours of food you can’t eat? To feel the need to shower four times in the afternoon?
These are some of the traits that characterise Sarah in Burning Bridges produced by Sally Knyvette Productions in association with Theatre 503. Sarah, played exquisitely by Rae Brogan, has Asperger’s syndrome (AS). It’s a developmental syndrome on the autism spectrum. In popular culture, you would probably know it by its most notorious incarnation in the form of Sheldon Cooper, of The Big Bang Theory fame. Sarah’s American voice and mannerisms seem very familiar if you’ve seen as many Big Bang episodes as I have.
What you might not know, is that AS is hugely under-diagnosed in women. So it’s important, in Burning Bridges, that Sarah is a young woman. It was written by Amy Schindler (Brenda Tucker in The Archers, if you listen to that kinda thing) in the midst of her mother’s illness and death. There is darkness at the heart of Burning Bridges. But what I remember most is its sharp and brilliant humour – particularly sensitively handled in the character of Sarah – and the hope at the end. There’s a lot of collateral damage in this play but there’s much good and goodness in it too.
Sarah comes to visit her big sister Kate (Anne Adams) and husband Dan (Simon Bubb) in London. Sarah and Kate are Americans whose alcoholic father has left them to fend for themselves. Turns out Sarah has spent all her fund for a specialist school on online gambling. Sarah starts to fancy Dan. Things get tricky for Kate and Dan. And things spiral from there. It’s a writerly piece of theatre; you can tell the playwright has a background in radio. There’s a lot of speaking to convey the action in a small theatre venue with a one-room set.
In the first act, we’re in a beautifully designed and typical London town house living room. It’s very Oliver Bonas with North London got-money-to-spend vibes. Well done designer, Max Dorey. The space works beautifully to keep the feuds and love and conversations centred in a seemingly familiar space. The second act gets a bit messier because the setting keeps switching around (kitsch new bar with pretentious menu, park, outdoor cafe, police station, home). It feels a bit odd going from a really detailed first act set to a more abstract and minimal design for the second half. That perhaps comes from the limitations of the text.
Still, that doesn’t distract from the delicately managed and powerful trio of relationships. There’s must to challenge us about how and who we trust in this piece. There’s also, for probably most of the audience, much to learn and expectations to challenge about how those on the autism spectrum might behave socially and emotionally. “People are different”, Sarah says. By which she means, not everyone with autism is the same. But also people are people, and how Sarah goes through crushes, manipulation, teenage strops, fun, drinking, learning, shows us that.
I leave the auditorium feeling undecided about all of the characters. Who I like, who I dislike, why. I think in the end that’s what is really interesting about this magnificent magnifying glass onto fractious family life, that no character is good or right or easy to understand.
Burning Bridges is playing at Theatre 503 until 8 October 2016. See Theatre 503 website for details and tickets. It’s not to be confused with Burning Doors, on at the Soho Theatre at the same time.
Photo: Sam Taylor