CW: speech disorder
I was initially apprehensive of Unspoken; often the portrayal of characters with less widely understood conditions, such as stammers, rely on stereotypes pedalled by poor media representation. However, not only was this play realistic but enlightening and highly engaging.
The main character, Alex, was acted so well by Rob Cole that it was painful to watch his struggle at times. This feeling was only enhanced when the physical representation of Alex’s stammer appeared on stage. A bearded, Viking-like man served this portrayal. From the programme I saw that he was supposed to be a wrestler, but I confess initially I was utterly confounded by his lycra attire, and thought he was supposed to be some sort of crazed cyclist (not an unfair assumption for an Oxfordian). Once you got over the confusing costume, the interactions between Alex and the Wrestler added a violent edge to an otherwise more passive play. However, I am not critiquing the muted staging and costume, as it guided the audience’s focus to the action on stage – Alex’s story and memories. Having the cast playing multiple characters contributed to this too: only Alex and the Wrestler remained one character throughout, giving their dialogue the most significance.
The relatively simplistic set and lack of props also allowed for some truly innovative staging, including a wonderful scene when Alex was besieged by his primary school teacher and a staff training representative. Unfortunately, I cannot recreate the brilliant back-and-forth interaction as the teacher, in his Irish burr, asked Alex to read aloud. Meanwhile, the hyper-enthusiastic training day leader entreating Alex to introduce himself was unsettlingly relatable for me, and judging from the uncomfortable atmosphere, the rest of the audience too. By taking relatable situations that strike terror into the hearts of many, the audience are able to project their memories and emotions onto Alex’s struggles.
The show lasted an hour and a half, including a brief talk with members of the cast and experts on stammers at the end. This play was short, but highly entertaining. The piece was simply packed with components – indeed, there was so much going on I found parts of the plot difficult to follow. But the fact that I found it so entertaining despite this only goes to show just how gripping Unspoken was.