Firstly let me say, I am a Scouser in Theatreland. It was therefore a complete delight to watch Liverpudlian Mandy Colleran’s performance as Frankie in How Do You Make a Cup of Tea? Straight, no nonsense, side-splittingly funny – I honestly laughed out loud several times in the short, 20 minute performance. She is absolutely excellent in this story about a person with a disability’s attempt to be cast as – well, a person with a disability!
Putting it on paper, that seems the obvious way things should be. However, we are probably all aware of the issues faced by under-represented creatives in the industry, who lose out repeatedly to people who appear to be liberal and well-meaning, but whose actions undercut their stated intentions.
From the start, the production questions the normality we expect. It begins without visuals; only white text on a black screen, and an electronically generated voice giving audio-description of the actors. When the performers appear, it’s via a Zoom call. Smiley, friendly Frankie zips forward in her electric wheelchair, but of course is on mute. This gives Sally (Dame Harriet Walter) an early opportunity to ‘help’ her. But we’ve all done that on Zoom, haven’t we? And for all of us, it takes just seconds to realise so and switch on the speaker. Frankie’s error is not a result of her disability, but because she’s a flawed human, as are we all.
Playing a patronising, self-important actress, Walter is splendid as Sally. Her prejudices are literally written all over her face as the two talk at cross-purposes. She thinks she’s got the main role in the play they’re discussing, but Frankie thinks differently: the part of someone with a disability should be given to an actor with a disability, surely, rather than having someone glean all their knowledge from them, to then simulate their condition? But is Frankie even a person to Sally, or does she only see a disability, and define her by that?
The moment of realisation when Frankie identifies she has been sidelined is cruelly cutting, made more brutal by the gently underplayed dialogue and her measured, controlled responses. Only when she goes offline do we start to get a hint of her rightful indignation, which is hilarious at the same time as being totally justified. This, juxtaposed with Sally’s absurd behaviour, as she becomes covered in more and more prejudices, suppositions and judgements, offers us a microcosmic view of Frankie’s larger life experience.
With his little funnies interspersed throughout the show, David Young’s role as Voiceover Guy can’t be overlooked either. Again, we’re challenged to listen to what’s actually being said, rather than defaulting to superficial assessment.
This production raises difficult questions about who should play disabled roles on stage. Is it appropriate for a perfectly competent person to be side-lined by an able-bodied actor, who is already at an advantage in the industry? Here, it is evidently never acceptable. As Frankie makes clear “You can’t read between the lines when there are no lines”. Watch the show for this pertinent message by all means. Or alternatively just watch it because it’s a clever, funny piece of theatre with a great cast (with or without disability!).
Written by: Kellan Frankland
Directed by: Stephen Bailey
Dramaturg by: Josh Elliott
Produced by: Nicky Miles-Wildin
How Do You Make a Cup of Tea? is the first in a series of plays from disabled led theatre company, Graeae, playing as part of their Crips Without Constraints Part 2 season. A new play will be released each Tuesday on their YouTube channel.