Should a ‘puppet’ have been used to portray an ‘autistic child’ in ALL IN A ROW?

I am a big supporter of Autism charities, campaigning for there to be more ‘Relaxed Performances’ of theatre shows, so that people of all abilities can experience the magic of theatre. So when I heard about #puppetgate online, I was immediately intrigued.

A huge backlash circulated on social media toward the play All In A Row (currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse), with people saying a puppet shouldn’t have been used to portray an autistic child and that an autistic actor should have been cast in the role.

The National Autistic Society said they “can not support the show” and many people boycotted seeing the production in protest to the dehumanising aspect of using a puppet.

A spokesperson for the show said:
“We don’t think we could get informed consent from a non-verbal autistic actor aged 11 to play the role and additionally due to the law around employing children we’d need to actually have a minimum of three child actors for the role, as well as specialist, trained and licensed chaperones present at each performance.”

This comment is one I have struggled to accept since hearing. There is nothing to say an actor with some level of autism couldn’t have played the role. They didn’t have to look for a child with the exact condition portrayed in the play. Actors, of any age, understand they are playing a character and it is not always the same in real life. Jodie Foster was fourteen when she played a child prostitute in Taxi Driver and Linda Blair was also the same age when she played the demon-posessed child in The Exorcist. So a young actor with some degree of autism could have been cast. Also, the comment about having to “have a minimum of three child actors for the role, as well as specialist, trained and licensed chaperones” makes it sound like a puppet was used because it was a cheaper option and less of an inconvenience on the show.

I went to see the play this week, to decide for myself how I felt about it all. Yes, there are a couple of hard-hitting moments with the child being thrown around the room but it was certainly nothing that warranted having to use a puppet instead of a person. To be honest, it would have been better to remove the puppet and just let the actor operating it, be the character instead.

All In A Row is a brilliant play that demonstrates how difficult it can be to raise a child with a disability and anything we can do to help normalise these types of conditions and see them talked about on stage, should be praised. Also, I don’t recall it ever being brought up when The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time didn’t cast an autistic actor in the lead role and so it shows a new sensitivity for the way we feel about how stories are told on stage which will now I hope be taken in to consideration for similar future productions.

Did they get it right using a puppet? I don’t think so. But it has been a great conversation starter for hopefully more plays on similar topics in the future and that is the message we should really be focusing on.

West End Wilma
Photo: Nick Rutter


Buy tickets to West End theatre shows (some great discounted offers)
Subscribe to my mailing list for all the latest theatre news, special offers and competitions