Spoonface Steinberg

Lee Hall’s play about a young autistic girl is imaginatively directed, but doesn’t come together on stage, says Giles Cole

Jermyn Street Theatre

Lucy Hollis
Lucy Hollis
© Francis Loney

Spoonface Steinberg is the classic 1997 radio drama that announced the playwright Lee Hall to the world. It imagines the way in which a young autistic Jewish girl who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer sees the world and her place in it.

As with his later massive success Billy Elliot, it paints an uncannily accurate and believable picture of a young person battling against the odds. If you thought Billy was really up against it as a boy hooked on ballet in a Yorkshire mining community, that was a walk in the park compared to Spoonface.

For some writers, getting inside a very young autistic girl’s head might be enough of a subject, especially when she has dysfunctional parents – a mother who likes ‘the vodka’ and a father who seduces his philosophy students – but not Lee Hall. He adds in the fact that she is not only consumed with images of the holocaust and concentration camps, but is also dying of cancer. Just how much bad stuff can one little girl take? Just how loaded in one direction can one play be?

Yet it works. Hall leavens all this by giving her a very appealing addiction to opera and ‘those sad singers who do the dying’. She plays ‘the proper music’ unlike others who ‘like Take That and that’. Thus she comes to have a surprisingly grown up attitude to her predicament, one that is immensely engaging, heart-warming, and which is calculated to make one feel just how incredibly lucky one is to have none of her afflictions.

The radio drama was so immediately successful it wasn’t long before it became a TV film and a stage play. The question is whether seeing everything acted out in front you is as compelling as letting it take shape inside your head.

Sadly, the answer is a clear no, though Lucy Hollis is a very watchable performer, who inhabits the stage in a larger than life fashion and with an infectious energy. The problem is that she appears rather older than one imagines Spoonface to be, and the effect is more of a gawky teenager with a doll fixation than a serious-minded youngster with a natural wisdom beyond her years.

She is therefore tempted into overdoing the little-girl aspect, and this gets in the way of the play’s stark truthfulness. Otherwise, it is imaginatively directed by Max Barton, with a nicely symbolic set design by Carmen Mueck, in which Spoonface acts out her own life in a nursery bedroom as if it were a bizarre variety turn.

But clever though this is, it dilutes the full impact of her bravery as she approaches the inevitable end.

Giles Cole