Teach us to care and not to care

Lisa Hammond gets audiences thinking about disability.

The British public, long used to arbitrating on the presence or otherwise of Talent and X Factor, has now been given a say in the devising of a show. Two actors went out on to the streets with a microphone and canvassed opinion on what their forthcoming play should be about, and the resulting performance is the wryly titled No Idea. It should be stated, for the record, that one of the performers, Lisa Hammond, is what the Americans preciously call a "little person"; her partner Rachael Spence is of average height.

The pair have a knack of making each line appear box-fresh. As they present this show about a show, and road-test some of the public's ideas, there's an off-the-cuff feel of live improvisation which is actually more akin to the well-honed grooves of stand-up: this play has been carefully crafted, under the direction of Improbable's Lee Simpson.

The public's suggestions are a springboard all right, but not in the direction the public intended. In the end, the laughs are on the unsuspecting contributors, and the show turns out to be very much about them and their perceptions of Hammond and Spence. When the actors play around with gilt frames, creating objectifying snapshots of various body parts, one senses that they were not the only ones to have been "framed".

Even as you wince, you can't help but feel a teensy bit sorry for the hapless interviewees. Their accents and agendas alike are ruthlessly and, it must be said, hilariously nailed by the two performers. One passer-by gives them deeply patronising advice about starting out with free performances. In small spaces. Another simply can't imagine two women doing a comedy and being funny. A group of youngsters suggest they beef up their flimsy act with big-hitters like Davina, Beyoncé or Phil from EastEnders.

And the tricksiest of all the tricksy issues is the public's response to the pint-sized pachyderm in the room, Hammond's disability. One assumption in particular tapped a well of frustration in Hammond, which is that an undersized person must be possessed of an outsized personality. It's what she calls the "Uh-oh, Here Comes Trouble!" syndrome.

Cheeky girls

Notably there are comments about her "cheeky, cheeky face", which the pair work up into a ribald music-hall number and push into the realms of savagely funny bad taste ("See the smile/of a paedophile . . ."). When, later in the show, Hammond fesses up to the misdemeanours that her condition enables her to get away with, and notes that we, the public, accept that "the freaky girl does freaky things", we revise our laughter at her song. Would it have been bearable, let alone funny, if sung by someone of standard size?

Enthusiastic lip-service is paid to Hammond being the star of the show, but interestingly, agonisingly, when the public is asked to string a storyline together, she is given nothing whatsoever to do. It would seem we are loath to visit any kind of mishap on her, to double-dose her with misfortune. And we certainly don't see her as a romantic lead. So while Spence frets that she'll be cast in "some kind of ensemble capacity", or as a "chorus tramp", she actually gets all the action.

While she gets to do a fabulously clownish "falling in love" montage of picnics, photo-booth capers and roller-coaster rides, Hammond is given the task of staying in the apartment, making a phone call. "I observe," she says acidly, "that I have had fuck all to do in that story."

Though the show points up our hypocrisy and confusion with regard to the "dwarf or midget", it is also a warm celebration of the possible relationship between able-bodied and disabled, and the friendship between Spence and Hammond is held up as an example of best practice. Teach us to care and not to care, as T S Eliot would have it, and Spence strikes pretty much that balance towards her diminutive partner, finishing the show with a rousing chorus of "I Don't Give a Shit About You!".

The yen towards didacticism -- all that messing around with body building-blocks can feel like a theatre-in-education workshop -- is playfully clocked, and the show just manages to pull back from the preachy. "We want entertaining, not cripples complaining!" larks Hammond, in the nick of time.

Crucially, I left the theatre thinking about her stature, but as a performer, not as a person. And humming "Cheeky face, cheeky face . . ."

Edward Bishop
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Tracey Thorn and A L Kennedy to judge the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize

The prize for “fiction at its most novel” announces its 2017 judging panel.

Tracey Thorn has been announced as a judge for the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize for fiction. Thorn – a singer-songwriter, New Statesman columnist and bestselling author – joins the award-winning novelists Kevin Barry, A L Kennedy and Naomi Wood, on the judging panel.

The £10,000 prize, co-founded with the New Statesman, is for fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”: The 2016 prize was won by Mike McCormack for Solar Bones, a novel narrated by a dead man, written in a single sentence. The judges praised it as “beautiful and transcendent” and “an extraordinary work”. McCormack is the third Irish writer to win the award, after Kevin Barry –  whose novel about John Lennon, Beatlebone, won in 2015 – and Eimear McBride, whose debut A Girl is a Half-formed Thing won the inaugural prize in 2013, having taken nine years to find a publisher. The 2014 prize was won by Ali Smith for her “reversible” novel How to be Both, which consisted of two narratives that could be read in either order.

Tracey Thorn found fame with Ben Watt in the duo Everything But The Girl, and went on to record as a solo artist and collaborate with Massive Attack, John Grant and others. She has published two books, including the Sunday Times-best-selling memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen, and writes a fortnightly column in the New Statesman, “Off the record”. Kevin Barry is the author of two short story collections and two novels, the first of which, City of Bohane, set in a wild west Cork in 2053, won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. A L Kennedy has twice been included in the Granta list of Best of Young British Novelists and she has written in many forms, as well as performing as a stand-up comedian. Her 19 books include the non-fiction work On Bullfighting and the novel Day, which won the Costa Book of the Year Award in 2007. Naomi Wood, who is chair of judges, is lecturer in creative writing at Goldsmiths; her most recent novel is the award-winning Mrs Hemingway.

Speaking at the prizegiving held at Foyles Charing Cross Road last November, Mike McCormack said: “It’s about time the prize-giving community honoured experimental works and time that mainstream publishers started honouring their readership . . . Readers are smart. They’re up for it.” Talking to Stephanie Boland of the New Statesman, he criticised the staid nature of British publishing: “Irish writers are selling their books into what is one of the most conservative literary cultures in the world, into Britain. British novels, British fiction, is dominated by an intellectual conservatism.”

The Goldsmiths Prize is open for submissions (novels written by authors from the UK and the Republic of Ireland) from 20 January to 24 March, 2017. The shortlist will be announced on 27 September and the winner on 8 November.

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.