Review: My Left/Right Foot – The Musical (Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh Fringe)

This new musical-within-a-musical by National Theatre of Scotland and the Birds of Paradise takes inspiration from Daniel Day Lewis’ turn as Christy Brown in ”My Left Foot”

The company of My Left/Right Foot
The company of My Left/Right Foot
(© Tommy Ga-Ken Wan)

The premise of this new show from the National Theatre of Scotland, and the Birds of Paradise, an inclusive theatre company that puts disabled artists centre-stage, is a cracker.

Amy, an ambitious young director with the Kirktoon Players, a small-town am-dram company, has noticed that they will earn extra points in the annual Scottish Amateur Dramatic Association competition if they become more inclusive. So they decide to stage a musical version of Daniel Day Lewis' turn as Christy Brown in My Left Foot – and their puffed-up leading man Grant (John McLarnon), who once had a part as a spear carrier at the RSC, gets ready to curl himself into a wheelchair. "Who hasn't won an Oscar playing the disabled?" he asks excitedly.

It is only when they realise that they have to include their handyman Chris (Matthew Duckett) who, like Brown, has cerebral palsy, and who suggests that the movie representations of disability are "inspiration porn-y" that they begin to understand what they have taken on.

This makes it sound rather serious. In fact, it the story is told in such a wildly bawdy and politically incorrect tone that were it not written and directed by another man with cerebral palsy, the disability rights campaigner Robert Softley Gale, it is unlikely that it would ever have got to the stage. As it is, it is a hoot, but not one for the faint-hearted. As a small example Grant, who loses the leading role to Chris, has a catchy little ditty called "I'm an Actor" which features the line "I can do spazz too."

The company of My Left/Right Foot
The company of My Left/Right Foot
© Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Confidently staged inside Rebecca Hamilton's carefully recreated 1970s community hall, its best quality is the way it includes surtitles, a visual describer (Gavin Whitworth, the musical director and pianist) and a signer (Natalie McDonald) not only in the action but in the jokes. The surtitles lurch into capitals when the patronising Sheena (wonderful Gail Watson) shouts at Nat to make her understand. McDonald herself both has a brilliant signing gag (literally) on the line "our patrons might not want it rammed down their throats" and a great moment when she constantly tries to pull the spotlight over to her in the terrific "The Show is Fucked", which has dramatic echoes of an Andrew Lloyd Webber number.

What's disappointing is that despite the show's enormous energy, it doesn't get very much further than its original proposition. Chris keeps telling us about the importance of Christy Brown, and the need for good role models, but the show itself doesn't ever tell us much more about Brown or his importance than the traduced film did. It seems to confine itself to a sitcom formula; enjoyable but not in the end at all revelatory.

What is a pleasure, on the other hand, is the commitment and skill of the entire cast, who sing, dance and emote with passion and panache. Dawn Sievewright is arguably wasted as Gillian, who fancies Chris and wants to see him centre stage, but her big number "On the Outside" all but brings the house down; Louise McCarthy is excellent as Amy, her ambition peering out beneath her warm exterior; Matthew Duckett is an endearingly confused Chris, and Richard Conlon provides a funny cameo as the nervous Ian, liberated only with alcohol.

The songs, with music and lyrics by Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie, and a couple of contributions from Richard Thomas, are sharp too. Thomas' mini-musical which has the cast whirring around pretending to be "Oirish" "full of fun and wit/even though their lives are shit" is an early high point.

It's just a shame that the show as a whole never tops that. It carries on being amusing, and its conclusion is a well-meaning plea for ongoing tolerance, but the power of its premise is never quite fulfilled.

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