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Review: Helping Hands at La Mama

By Lucinda Naughton

La Mama and A_tistic present the beautiful production, Helping Hands, directed by Hannah Aroni, Jess Gonsalvez and James Matthews; with the script co-created by the directors and devising cast. The play consists of diverse skits that cleverly explore autism from different perspectives and angles.

A_tistic is an incredible team of multidisciplinary neurodiverse artists, consultants and educators located in Melbourne. Using their style of Spectrum Theatre, they aim to bring autistic lives, insights, and experiences to the stage. Helping Hands is A_tistic’s fourth play, following Them Aspies (MUST, 2014, 2015); Pinocchio Restrung (Melbourne Fringe Festival, 2016); and Alexithymia (Poppyseed Festival, 2017).

Created in collaboration with a majority autistic and/or otherwise neurodivergent cast, Helping Hands brings incredible insight and emotional depth to the stage. It is a surrealist exploration of what help is and what it could be.

The play and devising cast of Tara Daniel, Vanessa Di Natale, Emily Griffith, Dee Matthews, Artemis Munoz, Aislinn Murray and Alexander Woollatt demonstrate through skits and impersonations of autistic philosopher’s, doctors, talk show hosts amongst others their abilities to engage audience members through humour, showing what was considered as help in the past and today. While Helping Hands is very playful a lot of the time, it will also suddenly whack you with such an emotional punch at times, demonstrating great range. The balance between emotion and humour is playfully seamless, creating deeply engaging theatre.

The devising cast demonstrate truly impressive performances. The performers portray the frustration of not being understood and for that being treated differently. It is heartbreaking and eye-opening.

The first skit, we are thrown into a talk show world, and slowly figure out it’s a world where people without autism are the minority, and people with autism are the majority. Therefore, a mother with a child without autism is being interviewed about what it’s like to have a child without autism. This flipping technique is a creative way to show how ‘glamorised’ discussions on autism can be, highlighting how underqualified people can speak about autism with deceiving confidence. This theme is explored further as we are taken through a kind of historical journey depicting the treatment of people with autism. After some enlightening and horrific stories, there’s a realisation that people, including parents, will do anything, as long as an expert tells them it’s ‘helping’.

It is of course such an unsettling and uncomfortably true idea that we need to face.

Helping Hands set and lighting design by John Collopy are simple and incorporating – at one point the lighting is brought up as claustrophobic so a character yells out to change it. The set is minimalistic yet use a few key props, such as a paper shredder, that add so much to the humour of the piece. The costume design of Hannah Aroni, with Aislinn Murray, Tara Daniel and Emily Griffith is similarly minimalistic all blacks, while here and there adding one piece of costume for great comedic effect.

Theatre techniques, such as narration and breaking the fourth wall, are used to creatively explain what is really going on – such as, what parents are actually teaching their children. The play intelligently explores so many stories and aspects in short skits and scenes, to great effect.

Helping Hands is genuine, heart-felt, and informative. It’s brilliant to see autistic lives, experiences, and insights brought to the stage by A_tistic, but also to see such a great theatrical production in and of itself. Highly recommend viewing!

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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