A family sits at a dinner table: Mum and Dad, their two sons, and a neighbour who might well be a girlfriend. The dialogue is ordinary and everyday – praise for the cooking, debate about the football, worries over A-level results. But one of the teenage boys sits with his back to the group, passing up the chocolate brownies in favour of munching on cereal. This is Adam, a young man with autism – and we soon discover that his comfort depends on familiar objects, and well-known routines.
But the delicate balance of Adam’s world is about to be disturbed. Brother Oliver is hankering to embark on the Bula Loop – an iconic round-the-world rite of passage, offered by a gap-year travel firm. Dad doesn’t like the idea; Mum’s more supportive, and Adam, naively, hopes he can go along. As the family both quarrel with and comfort each other, we learn more about the pressures and unknowing cruelties which are slowly, but oh-so-visibly, pushing them apart.
Tom Page – who also wrote the script – is impressive in his role as Adam, using physical mannerisms to subtly reinforce how his autism distances him from his family. Anxious and introverted, Adam is nonetheless eloquent when he comes out of his shell, and some of the most powerful scenes are the gentle two-handers where his friends and family reach out to him. But there are frustrations too, and occasional open arguments, played out with well-judged humour by a capable and convincing cast.
It’s engaging, entertaining, and eminently believable – and in a Fringe filled with ostentatiously stylised work, it’s refreshing to see a play which aims to capture the normality of family life. At times, though, the realism’s carried to excess, getting in the way of moving the story and the characterisation along. The broken-record complaints about Dad’s work-life balance sound more nagging than heartfelt after a while; and the early dialogue round the dinner table could use some trimming, so we can get more quickly to grips with the essentials of the relationships and the story.
A low-key twist towards the end cleverly subverts expectations, but I hadn’t quite learned enough about the characters to quite understand why things worked out the way they did. Still, there’s plenty here I did understand – for the first time – about the stresses and rewards of loving someone who has autism. Page’s play is billed in the programme as an “authentic work”, and it’s unmistakeably inspired by genuine experience. It ends, as it must, with few problems truly solved – but with the precious promise that, when the things we really care about are threatened, we can both learn and change.