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Review - Don't.Make.Tea.

Soho Theatre

Playing until 6th April 2024, then a UK tour

Photo credit: Andy Catlin

Review {AD-PR Invite}

The state of the UK’s welfare system is a topic often discussed by many, but those who actually rely on it are rarely the voices we amplify. That’s why Don’t. Make. Tea. is not only a refreshing piece of theatre, but a vital one. Presented by the disability-led Birds of Paradise theatre company and written by Rob Drummond, it’s a biting black comedy thriller that asks just how far someone will go to protect themselves from a system that seems to always work against them.


Set in the near future, we follow Chris (Gillian Dean), a woman living with oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy (OPMD), a condition that results in her having partial sight and reduced mobility, symptoms which are only going to worsen over time. In Don’t. Make. Tea.’s newer-age Britain, technology and accessibility go hand-in-hand, with Chris’s home being fitted with a TV featuring a live signer, a text-to-speech display, and the Alexa-inspired virtual assistant Able, who describes all the action on stage as it happens.


The use of audio description, subtitles, and signing aren’t just on-stage additions that improve accessibility. They play an active role in the plot and contribute significantly to the humour of the performance, making them a brilliant dramatic device.


The show begins with Chris chucking clothes on the floor, knocking books over, and messing up her hair and makeup. Her strange behaviour is quickly explained: she has her benefits assessment today, so she wants to show the “worst” version of herself to ensure she’s not deemed fit to work and can continue receiving the benefits she relies on to survive.


This assessment is the centre of the drama, which sees Chris receive a visit from Ralph (Neil John Gibson), the worker in charge of her assessment. He explains how the system has changed, supposedly having taken on constructive criticism, in a way that rewards those who are able to work.


What then unfolds is a darkly hilarious face-off between the two as Chris tries to answer Ralph’s increasingly sticky questions in a way that guarantees she doesn’t earn enough ‘points’ to throw her unwillingly into full-time work. The assessment soon turns deadly (literally), and Chris has to navigate an extraordinary situation to try and survive.


Dean is a commanding presence as the straight-talking, no-BS Chris. The character may make some questionable choices at times, but Drummond’s script and Dean’s performance give her so much humanity that we’re always able to understand her motivations and impulses throughout.


Meanwhile, Neil John Gibson is fantastic as the positively patronising Ralph, who has been so brainwashed into thinking he’s doing the right thing that he’s actually started to believe it, endlessly spouting government-approved slogans about their so-called “Accessible Britain”.


A particularly inspired choice at the start of act two is bringing Able and the TV signer (to life as figments of Chris’s imagination when she hallucinates as a result of her OMPD worsening, with the pair taking on the physical appearance of other people in her life.


Able, who Chris visualises in the image of her boyfriend Eric, is played hilariously by Richard Conlon. Every line delivery and gesture is full of charisma and he’s a delight to watch. Taking on the form of Chris’s mum, Emery Hunter’s expressive sign language also provides plenty of comic relief during the darker turns of events.


The madcap comedy and fast-paced plot occasionally veers too far off the rails in act two, particularly with an additional character and subplot squeezed in with not much time to fully explore them, but it still remains thoroughly compelling nonetheless.


Director Robert Softley Gale makes great use of Kenneth MacLeod’s sumptuous set design which transports us right into Chris’s home, a space which particularly comes to life in the second half of the show.


Don’t. Make. Tea. is a twisted comic caper that isn’t afraid to boldly interrogate the treatment of disabled people in Britain, with accessibility embedded into the action superbly. Birds of Paradise open up a critical conversation with this piece, which they do with plenty of creative flair and wickedly dark humour.


Writer:  Rob Drummond

Director:  Robert Softley Gale

Set & Costume Designer:  Kenneth MacLeod

Lighting Designer: Grant Anderson

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