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 . . ."

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496