Lionel's rewritten the script for us: Acting Up, a group of disabled and able-bodied performers, is experimenting with a new language, says Naseem Khan

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LIONEL likes the fish - or so it seems. He strains urgently against the glass. His long, thin, pale hands knock and scrape at it as if he's trying to gain access. Tired of one tank, he wheels away and crosses to another on the far side of the aquarium, where brown weed vibrates powerfully and large grey fish hover in and out of its strange, light-speckled interior.

He seems, or so we note, to like the fish. There are five of us, holding back on the sidelines, giving Lionel space in which to operate. It is as if we are intently watching a fabulous detective, trying to work out the symbols and signs (largely invisible to us) by which he is operating.

For in conventional terms, Lionel has very narrow capabilities. He is severely disabled. He cannot walk, cannot talk and has a cataract, so possibly cannot see very well. Tiny and fragile, his body has the vulnerability of a child and is topped by a head with lustrous eyes crushed beneath a large cranium. His arms, however, are strong - long, skinny and powerful, grabbing the sides of his wheelchair and propelling him decisively wherever his senses tell him he wants to be.

Certainly he wants to be with the glass tanks in the Marine World at Kew. Certainly he wants to be in the steamy high spaces of the palm house above, where, tipped backward, he looks up and up at the tree-crowded sky. And certainly, later in that eventful day, he wants to be in Syon Park's unpredictable Butterfly House, where slight scraps of vivid colour waft constantly in and out of tangled greenery.

Operation Lionel is an exercise in exploration, part of a

programme of work with people who have - or so many would say - minimal potential. ('They really shouldn't let them live, should they?' says the porter

conversationally, as Lionel and his companions are debouched at the station.) This group thinks otherwise.

Lionel and his companions Anil, Cynthia and Mark (all residents in the same north London council home) are members of the performance group Acting Up. So the trip to Kew Gardens and Syon House is fulfilling a double function. It provides Lionel with the stimulus of a new agenda; and his response and excitement provide material for themes that can be developed later in the group's work.

Videos whirr, cameras click, note-taking abounds. At the heart of all this activity, Lionel sits alert, head cocked to sounds. Occasionally he reaches back with one long arm to grab John, who is pushing his wheelchair, arches his body back and twists upwards, a pale and tight smile across his ravaged face.

Or is it a smile? You cannot rely on the usual explanations with Lionel or his companions. Pleasure might well be located somewhere entirely different, and expressed in different terms.

Watch sweet-faced Mark, for instance, as he listens to Herman's drumming, back in the home. His entire body arches backwards in its wheelchair in time to the overwhelming waterfall of sound. His non-functional feet stretch and twitch and rub one against the other; a hand painfully rises.

Mark and Lionel offer no easy compromises of language. You have to go back to basics and discover a new one. This is not easy, nor is it without its terrors. I am reminded of going night skiing. It was darker than dark: just a narrow range sharply lit up by beams from the lamps on our helmets and the strange glow of the night- time snow. The land ahead was utterly invisible - who knew if it dropped suddenly or rose? - and forced you into a supercharged kind of attention, using sight, sound, touch, vibration, wind, in order to function. Launching into that void was terrifying, but useful, for it demonstrated with immediacy how few of all our wits we commonly use. In their way, the Acting Up encounters are similar challenges, because they lack familiar signposts.

But that it is only part of it. The language that emerges involves exchange as well as expression. Herman Santana says: 'Mark and I are trying to find a new language in which we meet on equal terms. Mark creates a pattern from sounds and rhythms. We respond to each other like echoes, and take great pleasure in the sounds we make. We surprise ourselves sometimes, and start laughing.'

There is no question, he says, of he alone being the giver. 'Mark has showed me that little sounds are very important. Silence is important. Usually silence for musicians is a panic state, but with Mark I discover I don't always have to be playing the drum to be present, to be with him. He has given me a lot.'

Herman speaks for all the able- bodied members of Acting Up - performers, video-makers, musicians - none of whom see themselves as dispensers of bounty.

Watch Desmond Truscott working with Anil, a little, dogged, eager young man with a wonderful natural buoyancy of spirit, and you will see why. The duets of sound and movement they create embody complex bouts of good-

humoured play. Anil raises his hand. Des slaps it. Anil insists expectantly on more. Des changes the rhythm and weight and, taken aback, Anil throws his head back with a wave of laughter; he crows loudly. Des imitates him. Anil ponders this development and then cheerfully takes the conversation into a series of clicks and mouth-smacking sounds, waiting to see what Des will make of his initiative.

There is a freshness and immediacy about the exchange that is quite startling. It is that mysterious quality, 'presence', which actors spend years pursuing.

The strength of the Acting Up experience lies partly in the lessons that Lionel and the others give. It is no token political correctness that had them acting as trainers in a recent intensive course for drama students at Middlesex University.

Yes, said students, they had found it hard. Frankly, they'd found the trainers revolting; it was nauseating, said one young man, honestly. By the end of the fortnight the consensus was different. They'd learnt to respond directly and physically, to pick up different signals and recognise new signs of creativity. 'It's been brilliant,' they enthused.

There are signs that Acting Up's humane and imaginative approach is beginning - after many years of endeavour - to be recognised. The Arts Council, which cautiously gave the group a grant for research and development (part of which sent Lionel to Kew) has just announced a second, much larger grant. The Department of the Environment is providing three-year funding, from April, to develop parallel work with care workers on creative 'profiles' of the disabled.

The Arts Council grant will lead to an innovative piece of work which will use all the devices the team has researched with Lionel and others. The difficulties of the task, however, cannot be overestimated. Can an audience, coming fresh from the language of the outside world, pick up the different vocabulary being used? Can they recognise 'the articulacy of the imagination'? Can they forget their expectations as to what is a theatrical event? Or will they simply see disability?