All spelt out in black and white

THEATRE: Sympathy for the Devil; Tricycle, London
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The Independent Culture
`I hate that," the woman in the seat in front of me exclaimed at the line: "What do you call yourself first - black or disabled?" Sympathy for the Devil, the latest offering from Britain's leading disabled theatre company, Graeae (working with Basic TC), is loaded with odiously trite statements, sometimes awkwardly delivered, but it encourages its audience to take them with a healthy dose of scepticism. Beneath the ubiquitous blanket terms lie attempts at more complex self-definitions and the piece is far from being the po-faced exercise in minority issues drama it at first seems.

Initially, the play's author Roy Winston appears to be worshipping at the shrine of political correctness. The four black central characters (respectively: blind Chantelle, one-handed Jackie, wheelchair-bound Curtis and partially deaf Fitzroy) perform a movement-based routine giving thanks to the Lord for the body's ability to adapt to its impairments. Those who saw Graeae's highly physical account of Jonson's Volpone, renamed Flesh Fly, earlier this year, starring company founder Nabil Shaban, might imagine that they are in for similar eye-catching antics. But this opening sequence, it transpires, is in fact the show the four are taking from Brixton to the States for a week of "International Special Arts" and the splendidly surly Jackie (Deborah A Williams) recognises it for what it is: "crap".

From here on, the emphasis is on dialogue or, in the case of their white, able-bodied American hosts, the lack of it. They have organised a gala in which the group will appear alongside wheelchair dancers from Taiwan, a blind Italian magician, and a boy who can play the piano with his head. Patronising encouragements are their forte ("I'll be damned if you people aren't always smiling"; "We could learn something from all of you" etc). By stereotyping the American characters as insincere, prejudiced half- wits, Winston raises an uneasy laugh, but the main effect is to focus our attention on the finely sketched camaraderie within the group, a camaraderie that is torn apart by the appearance of another Brit - the white, able- bodied activist Jud (Jonathan Keeble).

Decrying the "helpfulness" of the organisers as manipulation, and insisting that the foursome boycott the gala, Jud sets off a debate not just about the way the able-bodied sap the confidence of the disabled, but also the way in which the disabled go along with this. Fitzroy, the group's leader, wants to marry Chantelle (beaming Maria Oshodi). He also thinks it would be handy if they popped into an evangelical church for her to be "healed". Given the title of the play, it is disappointing that this one scene has to carry both the play's vaunted argument about the demonisation of the "afflicted" and the personal crisis of faith in her man that the episode prompts in Chantelle.

Growing from this is the wider issue of discrimination by able-bodied blacks against their disabled brethren. This is alluded to early on in a droll transatlantic call between Fitzroy and his mother (again played with comic panache by Williams), who asks him to think twice ("People will make fun of you"). It is directly asserted by Jackie, whose sexual abuse at home and humiliation at school, was, she says, all the harder to endure because the perpetrators and mocking bystanders were black. Her final speech, in her solo gala spot, excludes no one, beautifully hedged between bitterness and defiance, between vicious stand-up ("Anyone here screw a black disabled woman?") and impassioned protest ("I don't want your sympathy, you're too late").

Up to this point, we have been able to watch proceedings safe in the knowledge that the imagined star-studded audience is elsewhere. But the way Jackie is allowed to speak her mind suggests that this platform is only available here and now in a small venue in Kilburn. This device causes a double-take, allowing the message to be hammered home while at the same time avoiding that great dramatic evil - preachiness.

To Saturday (0171-328 1000) Dominic Cavendish

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