REVIEW: Wonder Boy @ The Old Vic, Bristol (★★★★★)
An era-defining play for stammering awareness full of pace, energy, almost every emotion imaginable, and a fantastic cast to boot. 5 STARS
Written by Joe Allen with Jennifer Stazicker.
Photo credit: Steve Tanner
Wonder Boy is a powerful and moving play for both stammerers and non-stammerers alike. As someone who has stammered since early childhood, I resonated with so many – if not all – of the scenes and sub-plots. Some of the dialogue, such as one line which paraphrased ‘listen to what I say rather than how I say it’ was familiar to me, and readily found in stammering circles. Meanwhile, there were other themes and feelings which the play explores which were less immediate and familiar, but nonetheless wholly accurate summaries of life with a stammer. I lost count of the number of times where the play brought me back into touch with feelings and experiences, both positive and negative which had slipped to the edges of my memory.
You will have noticed that I mentioned the power of this play for non-stammerers. How do I know this? I am presently studying for an MA in Theology at the University of Exeter, and my friend and fellow postgraduate Jenny accompanied me to watch the play. The motivation for this was to introduce stammering to someone whose knowledge of stammering was limited. Though we have known each other for since we were undergraduate freshers, for some reason we had never talked about the more private and internal emotions and dimensions which feature in life with a stammer. To this end, I was keen to capture her reactions as a kind of ‘litmus test’ for how this play can act as a potential educational tool for those outside of stammering circles. This ‘test’ ended up being a wonderful success, which Jenny and I discussed in more detail having sat down again after processing what we had seen.
We sat down a few days after seeing the play to talk about our thoughts on the play – which I later transcribed and reproduce here. I would have provided a link to the recording – however – our conversation was littered with spoilers – spoilers which I do not want to reproduce here! If our vagueness of detail is annoying – you’ll just have to book a ticket for the broadcasts this week to experience all the twists and turns for yourself!
Photo credit: Steve Tanner
Prior to the performance, Jenny said that she knew “pretty much nothing” about stammering and that though she was aware of my stammer, had not met anyone else with a stammer to her knowledge, and “hadn’t done any research” either. In all, Jenny described her exposure and knowledge as being of “surface level”. To that end, she told me that she didn’t “really have many expectations to be honest partly because I knew very little about stammering”. It is for these reasons that I was keen for Jenny to come and see the show, to capture someone’s organic reaction to stammering – someone who was not acquainted with the stammering community or detailed knowledge.
Speaking generally, we agreed that the show was of good flow and pace. Jenny commented that it was “very fast paced and aesthetically good” referring to the minimalist staging allowing each for each scene to be the centre of attention. Additionally, where there was stage design and dressing, it tended to fit in with a comic book style something which Jenny commented “helped tune in with the schoolboy character” of Sonny, aged 12 – the lead role in Wonder Boy. Speaking of Sonny – Jenny had nothing but praise for the lead actor Raphel Famotibe – describing him as “exceptional and amazing. His acting was brilliant”. We agreed that the rest of the cast were amazing – comprising just 5 people in total – but each bringing exceptional acting and distinguished contributions.
‘Roshi’ is a character full of energy and humour – and an ally and friend of Sonny. The role of Roshi was played by Juliet Agnes – quite clearly a talented actor who brought passion to a character tasked with communicating a range of emotions and some hilarious extended pieces of dialogue!
‘Captain Chatter’ – the sidekick of Sonny brought us great understanding of the internal dialogue and struggle which comes with life with a stammer. Played by Ramesh Meyyappan, this is a role which Meyyappan excelled in – with a commanding and confident use of physical theatre which brought endless life and energy to the many scenes in which Captain Chatter featured.
‘Wainwright’ as aforementioned is a teacher with whom Sonny comes to share many of his struggles – indeed they seem to navigate many of Sonny’s experiences together. Amanda Lawrence acted amazingly – masterfully navigating the various sides to Wainwright which pop up at various points throughout the show.
Last but by no means least comes Miss Fish the headteacher, and Sonny’s Mum – two characters who were both played by Jenny Fitzpatrick. Both these characters are complex in different ways – and to play them required flicking regularly between playing two characters with two very different and often very complex backgrounds. Nevertheless, Fitzpatrick brought her acting, and on occasion her singing skills to bear – creating a simply fantastic performance.
Additionally, the cast were supported by two excellent live musicians – using what I believe were voice and keyboard to produce energetic and quasi-electronic tunes at regular intervals. Sounds a bit strange – but I promise you it worked and complemented the play nicely.
Jenny commented that “I thought that not having too many actors, too much going on, helped focussed on the quality of the actors and the quality of the scenes. Only five actors allowed the space to build up a deeper relationship with each of them” – sentiments which I wholly agree with.
But this review would be entirely deficient without a specific focus on the lead character of Sonny. Featuring both ‘audible’ and ‘internal’ dialogue, Sonny’s character, life, and struggles were able to be comprehended and understood by the audience in ways you simply wouldn’t ordinarily experience as a non-stammerer. This was not lost on Jenny who reflected that “I was quite surprised by my own reaction, there were times when I felt uncomfortable and felt intense emotion – there was so much emotion communicated through his stammer that I wasn’t expecting – there were moments where I felt like crying”. Not only is this testament to the exceptional acting of Famotibe, but also the writing of Ross Willis. Jenny was “surprised” by the depth and range of emotion that the stammerer feels. “When you hear someone stammering you are in a space of waiting and you don’t see what goes in someone’s head, so the play gave a really good insight into how people who stammer feel in that moment and that was a really unique insight… that was very important”. I gave the example of stammering as an iceberg – a model taught to me by the wonderful Anne and David Blight of The Starfish Project where I learned techniques to help overcome (but not cure!) my stammer – and gain the confidence (though naturally wavering!) which I am grateful for today. The iceberg – of which a tiny amount is visible above the surface compared to the colossal amount below – is in many ways indicative of the struggles of stammering which are seen versus unseen by those who we talk to. “I can see the entirety of the iceberg now but wouldn’t have thought about it before” – praise that shows just one dimension of stammering which the play sheds light on. Overall, Jenny told me that the play taught her that “It isn’t just the mechanical but the mental too and the play raised some mental health issues and that having support and someone to talk to is important”. Comparing knowledge before and after the show: “…the emotional depth was something which I really got from the play… that was the most impactful thing for me. [Wonder Boy] “shows the strength that someone has to go through all of that and still speak… [Wainwright] said it isn’t the way you’re speaking but what you have to say which is important… I felt like she had very profound things to say”.
For years, when people have asked about stammering or sought to understand more, I have pointed them to pieces of popular culture such as The King’s Speech. Starring our wonderful Vice President Colin Firth as King George VI, his struggle with his stammer speaks volumes and presents stammering insight in ways which I cannot always put into words. The King’s Speech, in my opinion, will remain a foundational resource for understanding stammering for years to come. However, we can now add Wonder Boy to the body of works which successfully and accurate depict the realities of stammering. I have no doubt that it should sit alongside previous success projects such as The King’s Speech. That said, Wonder Boy is a uniquely apt production for the mission and vision of Action for Stammering Children. Indeed, in Wonder Boy we meet an ordinary boy in an ordinary and struggling school. All we know of his support is a sympathetic teacher, there is no indication of any Speech and Language Therapy or professional intervention. In many ways this reflects the unfortunate reality of the ‘postcode lottery’ which young stammerers in this country face – patchy and non-existent NHS resources in various boroughs and Trust areas. Not only this, in Wonder Boy we gain a window into the life of a young stammerer navigating their speech and their education.
The play comes with trigger warnings of various types, including violence and very strong language. These trigger warnings were justified – the language was colourful, and some scenes were on the violent/unsettling side. Whilst this may be a barrier to younger audiences viewing (the theatre recommends 12+), ultimately I believe that the language and triggers are employed appropriately and proportionately within the scenes they feature. They help elucidate and magnify rather than cheapen and needlessly offend.
In reflecting on Wonder Boy since I went to see the play, I am firmly of the view that this play has the real potential to be an era-defining piece of popular culture for the dissemination of stammering awareness and the development of understanding stammering among the non-stammering community. Note my use of the word ‘potential’. This is not a criticism or a limitation on my view of its application – rather a statement of support that this play deserves to be seen as widely as possible. The foreword in the playscript makes it clear that this is a complicated play to produce – it requires deep understanding on the part of the cast. Nevertheless, I hope that the live broadcasts to follow this week may be complemented by subsequent runs, perhaps in other cities and urban centres across the country.
In all, I have nothing but extensive praise and profound gratitude to Ross Willis and the cast for portraying life with a stammer accurately, respectfully, and with such talent. Do watch the upcoming broadcasts – you will not regret it.
Joe Allen is studying for an MA in Theology at the University of Exeter, specialising in Roman Rite Liturgy. He is a Youth Panel Member at Action for Stammering Children and has stammered since early childhood.
Jennifer Stazicker is studying for an MA in Theology at the University of Exeter, specialising in Eco-Theology. She is a great fan of poetry and the spoken word.