Still No Idea (Royal Court)

Still No Idea (Royal Court, until November 17th)

“If I saw two women come on stage I’d say a serious play.” That quote from a member of the public and repeated by Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence in Still No Idea couldn’t be more wrong – yet it turns out to be partly true of their provocative new offering.

The pair’s follow-up to No Idea in 2010 – in which the general public were asked their views on what story and characters Lisa and Rachael might present on stage – repeats the experiment in the light of a supposedly changed world, in which things couldn’t be better for disabled people.

We’re reminded of the original project, in which the disabled person was treated kindly but ended up shunted into the background while the able-bodied performer enjoyed an exciting and dramatic storyline. These are recreated hilariously (including a domestic abuse plot, observations on life, and a cheeky song) but are shown to be ultimately unsatisfactory.

Nearly a decade later Lisa and Rachael repeat the vox pop, hoping that an increased focus on and acceptance of disabilities in the public eye (such as the Paralympics, a disabled contestant on Bake Off and a one-armed presenter on children’s TV – all described as “inspiration porn” for shining a light on people without tackling the underlying issue) might have broken down barriers, broadened minds and changed attitudes.

But when asked to build up a storyline for the two performers, the public soon resort to creating good stories for Rachael while Lisa is again left in a corner with nothing to do. They just cannot see how a disabled protagonist might be used effectively.

The message is painfully clear: despite promises of changing the world, little has happened, indeed things may even have started to go backwards. As Lisa observes, “I don’t want change ‘for the children of our future’ I want change for me now.”

The two actresses regularly comment on what they have discovered in a process which grows more and more uncomfortable and dispiriting. In one section Lisa (well-known for her role in TV soap EastEnders) plays a disabled actress offered a role in a long-running TV series – “darling, not a disabled part” – only to find herself still waiting for a decent storyline four years later simply because the writers don’t know what to do with her.

A third attempt at asking the public to create a story only puts Lisa to the fore because everyone questioned is disabled.

The show suggests that there could be hope by putting people with disabilities into positions of power and authority; the remark comes darkly after the names of people who died because of benefit cuts after being declared “fit for work” by the Department of Work and Pensions are projected onto the back wall. How are people going to reach top jobs when they so often struggle to receive basic help just to live? ask Hammond and Spence.

Still No Idea recognises that there are no easy answers to the questions it poses, though suggests the audience might try to imagine the lead character in a play, book or film is disabled – it doesn’t change anything but at least it’s a start.

This ingenious 80-minute show, a strong collaboration between the Royal Court and Improbable, is a snappy and forceful reflection on how people with disabilities can be so easily edited out of both fiction and real life.

Lisa and Rachael, who have just formed a new artistic partnership called Bunny, are passionate about their subject without being pushy, demolishing any notion that things have improved in 10 years or that the disabled are any less invisible.

It is a sobering and revealing production that makes the most of the friendship and humour of its two leads and which uses its source material effectively.

While depressingly blunt (the pair admit the show takes the audience to “a rather bleak place”), Still No Idea manages to raise many smiles and at least begins to point those who see it in the right direction and start to imagine a positive future creatively if we will but take up the gauntlet.

David Guest 

Image: Camilla Greenwell

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub