Waiting for the bus outside Watermans, I heard one mum say warily to another, “That show dealt with quite adult themes”. But WiLd! reminded me of being at primary school, and of the disruptive troublemaker in my year who was let out of lessons to attend ‘special’ classes, was occasionally suspended (and eventually excluded), and who I would occasionally catch taking tablets at break time. It gave me a better understanding of what life must have been like for him as a child with ADHD – the frustration as he struggled to understand why his brain acted differently, and loneliness as some of his classmates (often encouraged by their parents) tried to steer clear. I never knew much about his home life, but WiLd! explores the possible impact a diagnosis can have – in the production, it is the catalyst for family breakdown. So the show doesn’t deal with ‘adult’ themes, but complex themes that many young people will recognize and come into contact with. Once again, tutti frutti has produced a piece of new writing that sensitively and intelligently taps into the issues actually concerning and affecting its audience.
Controversy surrounds Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in children, hyped up by the media as debates rage over whether the condition is over- or under-diagnosed, should be treated with medication or not, or if it even exists at all. It’s easy to forget that at the centre of all these discussions are young people with personalities and experiences that become hidden by the label of ADHD: young people like ten-year-old Billy (Rhys Warrington) – the central character in tutti frutti’s one-man show. Billy’s parents represent opposing sides on the issue – his mum is keen to read up about the disorder, believing that Billy can’t help his challenging behaviour, whereas his dad refuses to engage, insisting that it’s just naughtiness.
The play’s form matches the content. Billy’s monologue, an internal letter to his father, highlights both how alone he is and the chaotic nature of his thoughts, which flit hurriedly from one idea to the next: it’s clear that ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is as much about hyperactivity of the brain as the body. Billy is, at the same time, almost constantly on the move, scrambling across or swinging from the climbing frame set that comes to represent everything from a car to a bed. Live percussionist Molly Lopresti adds to the constant on-stage movement, and as the sounds she makes are looped by computers to become increasingly layered, it becomes hard to pick out a single thread, the music becoming a busy wall of noise that feels like the inside of Billy’s brain.
Evan Placey’s script doesn’t attempt to represent or speak for every child with ADHD. Billy and his family offer a unique story in a particular set of circumstances that nonetheless might help audiences to understand or empathize with young people like him. As a character, Billy’s particular passion is bees, and it is through his interest in, and interaction with, bees that we see he is also capable of storing information, and being compassionate, calm, quiet and focused. The use of buzzing bees as a metaphor for Billy’s buzzing brain doesn’t feel like an unrealistically convenient or clichéd theatrical device: the audience watch as both Billy (and his doctor) realise that they are a way to help him understand the condition.
The patience and composure constantly demanded of Billy aren’t always demonstrated by the adults around him. The approach of his teachers seems draconian: punishing him for what could have happened rather than what actually did, insisting he perform impossible tasks and quickly reprimanding him when he can’t. His father is furious with Billy for forgetting where he lives, but can’t keep his own son’s birthday in his head. Sympathy for children with ADHD can be lacking, but WiLd! gives audiences a distance and depth of insight which illustrates that the reality is messier and more complicated than sensationalist headlines would allow. Billy isn’t the wild and uncontrollable boy screeched about by scaremongering tabloid-writers, he’s often just an energetic and active boy struggling to fit within the narrow strictures that adults try to impose on him. It’s difficult to understand this when you’re in a class with a boy like Billy every day, as I was; to grasp it requires the sort of sustained empathy that WiLd! helps its audience to achieve.
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