Review by Sam Waite
With many of London’s biggest theatres being older buildings, the need for accessibility is an ongoing issue and many spaces are simply not accessible for disabled audience members, much less performers. Knowing that disabled access is so important but so often not provided, it’s wonderful to see the Royal Court Theatre co-producing alongside Access All Areas on Imposter 22, a comical murder mystery created and performed by autistic and learning-disabled creatives.
The play’s setup is that we, the audience, have been invited to a cabaret performance which is actually a front for a recreation of the events leading up to an unseen character’s death. Members of a drama group, the cast thought it best to show us, their witnesses, what transpired so that we can vouch to law enforcement that none among them is the killer – though some did behave suspiciously in the days prior to the event. Actors are expensive, so a homeless man named Danny has been enlisted to play the part of the deceased Joe, beginning with a chance encounter on a London bus.
The cast are charming and their interaction with the audience feels organic and natural, with Housni Hassan and Cian Binchy introducing the premise as well as the relaxed nature of the performance before beginning the first scene. Each member of the drama group has time to build a rapport, or an animosity, with Danny’s recreation of Joe – some, like Stephanie Newman’s Rose (a role alternated with Anna Constable), take to him right away, while Kirsty Adams’ Blossom is immediately suspicious of his intentions and behaviour.
While Jamael Westman’s Danny/Joe is at the core of the narrative, the production belongs to the entirety of its talented ensemble. Westman is a brilliant actor and brings a depth of feeling to both the homeless wanderer and the depressed history teacher, but the real impact of his performance is due to his otherness in this company. In a clever, poignant subversion of many real-life situations and working environments, Westman (and his character) is the only neurotypical, non-disabled member of the group. This leads to a continual exclusion, with him never really being accepted as part of the group, highlighting not only the reality faced by many but the strength of his castmates.
Indeed, Danny’s frequent confusion allows for the rest of the cast to show off their comedic abilities. Newman brings a boisterous, rebellious spirit to Rose, which Adams’ Blossom is cutting, blunt, and hilariously no-nonsense. Charlene Salter, as drama group leader Chloe, drips with genuine concern at the idea of her friends being taken advantage of, while Hassan’s Kev delivers a powerful, richly emotive monologue during the second act. Stagehands are ready with scripts in hand should the actors need a reminder of their next line, but this welcome accommodation can’t help with the emotional heavy lifting, which the actors take full command of.
Written by Molly Davies, from a concept by Hamish Pirie, the script itself is not only funny but filled with genuine suspense. Characters try, and occasionally fail, to remove themselves from the suspect list in-between pauses to make clarifications or to correct Danny’s performance. As I mentioned, her subversion on the exclusion of people with learning disabilities is smartly done, and Davies finds plenty of opportunity to comment on the way such characters are usually treated in storytelling without it sounding forced or interrupting the narrative flow.
Pirie, behind the concept and the play’s director, keeps things moving along as a solid pace. Indeed, a joke is made in Davies’ script about how (deliberately) slow the opening is and from then on the tempo is almost always just right. His strongest choice is to create “The Circle”, as outlined in the visual guide available from the venue, where the action of the re-creation takes place – this clear separation allows the audience an immediate clarity on what is part of the story being re-told, and what are the honest reactions of the characters as they observe each other’s scenes. Admittedly, whether a minor fault with the script or a need for a slowing down on the director’s part, it does become a tad too easy to miss crucial details in the final scenes – speaking to another audience member afterwards, I did notice that missing a single sentence or phrase was easily done and could massively impact your understanding of the plot’s outcome.
Visually, the show is beautifully realised – Cai Dyfan keeps the stage design simple for the first act, leaning into the setup of the characters using a currently-empty theatre as their hiding place-cum-performance space. In the second act, the curtain rises on a more detailed and elaborate set, which is gorgeous but which I won’t say too much about as the design deserves to have its full impact. Clever lighting (Anna Watson) and sound (XANA) designs help to immerse us in the reality of the story and use sharp changes to break the illusion when the characters bring us back to “reality.” Videos by Lewis den Hertog add to the immersion, with handwritten notes and illustrations displaying as makeshift clarification for time and location, adding to the homemade, on-the-fly quality of the show.
A genuinely engaging mystery, a night of intelligent commentary, and a meaningful commentary on the treatment of learning-disabled individuals, Imposter 22 succeeds in being many things without any becoming the primary focus. Along with materials being available to clear up any plot confusion or potential upset at the content, and dedicated quiet spaces being provided – one with a viewing screen and the other completely separated from the performance – the Royal Court’s dedication to this collaboration with Access All Areas shines through at every level. Even without these accommodations, the play itself is a strong piece of theatre, and it’s heart-warming to see how accessible it has been made.
Imposter 22 plays at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until October 14th
For tickets and information visit https://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/imposter-22/
Photos by Ali Wright