Theatre: The wheel of misfortune

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The Independent Culture
SUBTITLED A Play for People Without Them, this satirical comedy by the oddball Scottish author Alasdair Gray - winner of the 1993 Whitbread Prize for Poor Things - is his first theatrical writing since the days of the last Labour administration. In many ways, unfortunately, you can tell: the ghost of Seventies agit-prop looms large and lumbering.

The piece was commissioned by Birds of Paradise, a Glasgow-based company that creates opportunities for actors with physical disabilities, and perhaps their and Gray's primary mistake was to zero in on the theme of disability itself. Gray posits a world where the able-bodied are a marginalised minority, pitied, reviled and discriminated against by the wheelchair-using majority, with all facilities designed to accommodate those on wheels, rather than on "working legs".

Following a near-fatal road crash, hapless wage-slave Able McCann finds himself consigned to an ambulatory existence - unable to adapt back to life in a wheelchair, he is registered as "hypermanic" with the social welfare department. Despite finding romance with a colleague, government cuts and her parents' prejudiced disapproval soon threaten his new-found happiness.

Clearly, it provides for plenty of inversion comedy: the able-bodied contending with low doors and ceilings, and never having anywhere to sit; Able standing in a bar trying vainly to get served, being palmed off with the excuse that "it's not easy to see people whose heads aren't at normal height". What it doesn't provide for is narrative or character development.

The effect might have been softened had the writing displayed more of Gray's signature wit and quirky flourish, but it's in the frequently wooden, awkwardly fashioned dialogue that those Seventies spectres are to the fore. Similarly, much of the jibing at DSS and New Labour is both heavy- handed and glib. The cast of 10, in roles (mostly two or three each) that are little more than ciphers, can hardly hope to shine, though some performances muster life, notably Kevin Howell, juggling five parts, and Ernie Kyle as Able's prospective father-in-law. But there's little they can do to salvage this creaky dramatic vessel, however laudable Gray's aim that it "should be actable by as many disabled folk as possible".

The upshot is to box in, not highlight, the company's skills and the implicit message.


At the James Arnott Theatre, Glasgow, 24-27 June. Bookings 0141-287 5511.