REVIEW: ‘Wonder Boy’ at The Old Vic, Bristol – ★★★★★
Action for Stammering Children has recently appointed a new Communications and Projects Co-ordinator, Connor Tregunna. He recently organised a theatre trip to Bristol for our Youth Panel and here is his personal review of the production.
For a long time, when I’ve told people I have a stammer, they often say “Oh, like in The King’s Speech?” and I say yes – but also no. I have a stammer, but every stammer is different, and at least I don’t have to deliver a speech to the entire United Kingdom. At least I don’t have to do that.
And yet, last week when I attended a dress rehearsal of Wonder Boy, alongside colleagues at Action for Stammering Children and members of our Youth Panel, I found a show that challenged and changed my own perceptions of this ‘thing’ that I’ve co-habited with for 25 years. I’ve never seen myself stammer in third person, I’ve always avoided talking on camera. But when I sat down to watch Wonder Boy I was faced with a portrayal of my younger self during a time that I admittedly still haven’t really processed. Of course, it wasn’t literally my younger self – but it felt like it.
Raphel Famotibe portrays the reality of being a young person who stammers better than any non-stammerer I have ever seen. I saw the same agony, stress, exhaustion and quality of performance in his character, 12 year-old Sonny, that I did from Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. In his performance I came to the realisation that actually, while yes, I wasn’t King George VI delivering a speech to the nation – I did make it through something really tough, but I didn’t give myself credit for it. I worry that other young people who stammer don’t give themselves or get from others the credit they deserve for the often complex and internalised struggles they face every day. The reality for an estimated 150,000 children and young people who stammer in the UK is that they regularly face prejudice, misunderstanding, hostility and bullying.
Sonny is deep in the trenches of the education system and aside from having a stammer, his home life is complicated too. The show opens with Sonny writing about a comic character of his creation, Captain Chatter (Ramesh Meyyappan). It was immediately recognisable to me that this comic was his escape – people who stammer will very often have an escape. A place we go where we don’t have to say a word. When I was younger, it was videogames. Now that I’m in my mid-twenties, it’s a long walk on the coast – and videogames.
But the character in Sonny’s mind is not like other comic heroes. Where Spider-Man has the ability to swing through New York City and take down the villains that threaten it, Captain Chatter has such powers as “MAKING SMALL TALK!”. It’s those impactfully relatable desires and nods to my inner thoughts that cemented my faith in the accuracy of stammering that would follow, and did, from act one until the curtains closed. That accuracy is a credit to writer Ross Willis (Wolfie), another person who stammers – who has so perfectly put his experiences into the story.
The power of making small talk. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in a barber shop, building up the courage to ask the man cutting my hair something. Just to be like anyone else. I sit there, thinking of the sentence as many times as it takes. “How’s business? How’s business? How’s business….”, looking at my face in the mirror to make sure my physical stammering isn’t too obvious. Only to then be unintentionally and harmlessly cut-off by my barbers own small talk. I respond or nod with a smile but I feel internally deflated. It’s so easy for him, and that’s not his fault.
I saw this same deflation in the face of Sonny as he listened to one of his peers, Roshi (Juliet Agnes), talk to him in detention. Roshi doesn’t stammer. She has the powers that Sonnys hero Captain Chatter has – she can and does talk. It’s the kind of talk that doesn’t have any philosophical meaning, or any viable importance. It’s about such topics as her reputation as someone who really loves Ketchup – or how she can allegedly fit a whole gerbil up her nose.
Roshi and Sonny are similar in many ways, both are getting into trouble, both seem to spend most of their school day in detention, and it’s apparent that their complicated and uncertain home lives may be the root of that. Sonny and Roshi live in the same housing block and while in detention Roshi jokes that the housing block “stinks of ‘wee’” – and Sonny begins to tell his own joke about the state of the housing, but he can’t get the words out – and the show just moves on. Except, a few minutes later – the cast, besides Sonny, freeze – and the beam of light bordering the stage turns red – the audience is now inside Sonny’s head, and we do get to hear the joke he wanted to say, and we do get to hear the compliment Sonny tried to give to his teacher about her pencil case earlier in the show. It’s small talk – it means nothing to most, but he desires it.
The kicker for Sonny arrives when he is told the news that due to his behaviour he’s been enrolled in the school drama club. But not only that, he’s been cast in the school production of Hamlet, and worse yet – his character has a line of dialogue.
With determination and resolve, you can battle through the rough ocean that is being a young person who stammers, and at the end, you find a door to accepting your stammer.
Wonder Boy is a show unapologetically inclusive, everyone is welcome here to enter our world. The production is a royal feast for the senses, directed by legendary, Olivier-award winning theatre powerhouse, Sally Cookson (A Monster Calls, The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe). Creative captioning is used throughout, meaning that the dialogue characters are saying is being projected on the stage in real-time. It’s a stage that doesn’t change, but doesn’t need to – because it works in every act, in every scene.
Characters enter and leave Sonny’s world via a door akin to that of the one Truman finds at the end of The Truman Show. You could say, the door itself offers a comparative analogy for young people who stammer – with determination and resolve, you can battle through the rough ocean that is being a young person who stammers, and at the end, you find a door to accepting your stammer, and in time – you walk through.
The stage exists to hold every setting of Sonny’s current life – the settings of a normal 12 year-old. He goes to school. He goes to his foster home. He repeats. But it’s repetition to no fault. This show taught me that repetition isn’t always boring, and by that rule, people who stammer are not boring. And if that rule isn’t direct, it’s explored by the character of Deputy Headteacher Wainwright (Amanda Lawrence). Lawrence channels the greatness of the late Victoria Wood in her performance as the witty, carefree yet sincere Deputy Headteacher, and later proves her magnitude as a performer when she re-enters as none other than William Shakespeare himself, taking the form of a Goliath to Sonny’s ‘David’. A powerful entity that he must face – a powerful entity that is armed with a giant quill that shoots – you guessed it – miniature quills, emitted like lasers from an X-Wing. “You can’t destroy me! I’m on the -ing curriculum!”. It’s something you really have to see for yourself.
Okay. I can’t go further without mentioning the audio wizardry of Will and Benji Bower. The duo behind the show’s music – the quality of the soundtrack was so refined – surely it could only have been drawn from a studio album. I came to the awestruck realisation that the music was being played completely live. The electric, dreamy vocals were reminiscent of Francis Starlite, and the beats on the drum machine were so well-timed that, whether intentional or not, they gave me the same satisfying feeling of being able to tell someone my name in one clean go.
Wonder Boy stood-out with pinpoint accuracy in expression of reality. Having a stammer is an everyday hurdle. It’s the fear that grips you when you just want to order a coffee, or buy a bus ticket. It’s this internal monologue that Captain Chatter silently yet powerfully delivers on stage – “You can’t go to this! Someone might ask your name! You might stammer!”.
But this isn’t just a show about stammering. It’s a show about one young person’s coming- of-age, while having a stammer. What isn’t understood but needs to be – is that stammering goes so far beyond a difficulty to speak. It’s ruthless, unfair and cruel – and it chooses when it wants to be that way. Say, for example – I did want to get that coffee, maybe on that day I was feeling confident. I walk into the coffee shop, approach the person behind the counter and – nothing comes out. It’s like there’s tape over my mouth. The people behind me in the queue tut. They only have five minutes left of their lunch break. I’m causing a hold up, and I’m stressed. Do I give up? Do I power through? All I want is a cup of coffee. It’s these situations where you’re pulled back down to the reality of your condition that make stammering an everyday burden. But where this show hit me the hardest were the flashbacks into Sonny’s relationship with his late Mother (Jenny Fitzpatrick). The script gives you the exact amount of delicate detail such that you don’t know exactly how, but she’s ill. You know enough – she was ill, and she died. So the thoughts, regrets that Sonny has on the matter orbit within his mind. He wishes he said more to her while she was alive, but he couldn’t vocalise it.
It’s a stark reminder that a person who stammers doesn’t just stammer – they also have a life around it. A life just as complex as any other, sometimes made more complex when the stammer and the external issues overlap. Sonny’s mother lived with the guilt many parents of children who stammer face. Did I do something wrong? Is it my fault? The answer, that it seems Sonny’s Mother didn’t live to learn – is no. It is never the parents’ fault.
Wonder Boy is solid proof that it’s OK to stammer in a society where your stammer makes you ‘different’. If the purpose of the show is to accurately tell the story of how it feels to have a stammer, or to offer hope to and empower other young people who stammer – it does that. I want you to go along and see it for yourself. I want you to enter our world, just for an evening.
“the most emotional and heart-warming performance”
The Action for Stammering Children Youth Panel members who attended the dress rehearsal with me, described the show as “highly recommended”, “the most emotional and heart-warming performance” and “a very realistic show of what having a stammer is like”.
Stay tuned for a review from our Youth Panel member Joe, when he attends ‘press night’ later this week.
Thank you to The Old Vic and the Cast & Crew of Wonder Boy for giving us this exclusive early look at what is a most needed and welcome representation for young people across the UK who stammer.
By Connor Tregunna
To find out more about our Youth Panel contact Connor at [email protected] and keep in touch with all our activities via our social media channels.