The intellectually handicapped are one of those minorities who receive little attention in the creative arts. Issues such as the nature of institutional care and the need to recognise the basic humanity of the disabled are left alone, a neglect that echoes and perhaps reinforces community apathy and latent hostility. Hence Mary Morris has made a fine contribution in writing Boss of the Pool (based on Robin Klein’s 1986 novel) and the Centenary Theatre Group are to be congratulated for tackling it. Congratulations should not be limited to the attempt, however: this production treats an emotive and difficult subject with compassion, sensitivity and a good deal of skill.
Boss of the Pool is centred on restless and peer group focused mid-teen girl Shelley, coaxed by her long-suffering mother Anne to spend some time at a hostel for the intellectually handicapped where Anne works. Shelley has to find a way to respond to the residents, and in particular Ben, whom she teaches to swim.
The story unfolds through a series of mainly short scenes in the hostel, Shelley’s home and elsewhere. The need to transform sets rapidly and use lighting imaginatively to highlight parts of the stage could easily have come unstuck: in this production, however, it all comes together smoothly.
Lisa Hefford acts convincingly in portraying the enthusiasms and disappointments of Shelley and in showing her character development as she responds to the needs of the disabled Ben. She has a gift for teenage body language and facial expressions, such as her reactions to the adult cluckings of her mother and next-door neighbour. (My only suggestion is that she Australianise her Kiwi vowels if she’s going to play Aussie characters in future.)
Anthony West does an outstanding job at capturing the loud, boisterous and affectionate brain-damaged young man Ben. Ben suffers from an intense fear of water (which, as we discover, is not at all irrational), but loves sport and craves attention. His parents have effectively abandoned him. West portrays the complexities of Ben’s character, making us believe in his inner turmoil, his fears, his bravery and his deep need for human contact. Some of the most extraordinary moments in the play involve no dialogue at all, as Ben grunts and moans while trying to master the pool.
Other roles are generally well-cast and played, and several actors do well in carrying differing and contrasting roles. Shelley’s gaggle of shopping- and boy-obsessed friends are entertaining in their self-obsession and cattiness.
While the actors do well, it is evident that director Rod Felsch has used a deft hand in making it all happen. Transitions are smooth and scenes are well set. Particularly striking is the upstage tableau of disabled “inmates” pressed motionless against the screen doors when we first meet them. (I thought it was a backdrop at first.) The pool-centred scenes also come off very well, as do the opening swimming championships depiction and the wheelchair disco.
Shelley’s initial confrontational language concerning the disabled (“Retard Farm” etc) is rather disturbing, as it is no doubt meant to be. But I couldn’t accept that her character, even in its earlier mixed up and angry state, would have used such language directly to the disabled people she encountered. Better, I think, to have treated these lines as “interior monologue”.
Without laying it on with a trowel the play gets us thinking about various issues relating to the intellectually handicapped and about institutional life in general, such as community resistance to hostels in local neighbourhoods, and organisation of structures and activities to suit the staff rather than the residents. The production also succeeds in depicting adult misunderstanding of teenagers, Shelley’s deepening understanding of the triviality of her teenage friends’ concerns, and an evolving mother-daughter relationship. It does all this in the context of gentle humour and also some quite funny moments.
Centenary have, again, done a splendid job.
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