For the visually impaired and other disabled people, the processes involved in claiming and retaining benefits and support can cause a lot of stress. Some are left feeling that their conditions and needs are not understood by those making the decisions. and by wider society in general for that matter. And there is some truth in that unfortunately. Although awareness is improving, there is still a lot of work to be done.
A new play called Libby’s Eyes is hoping to increase that awareness. It’s written by visually impaired playwright Amy Bethan Evans, and stars visually impaired actress Georgie Morrell as Libby. It’s not often at all that you see a disabled character played by a person with that disability, so that delighted and intrigued me when I heard about the production, as well as the overview of the story itself. So I went to see it on Thursday night with my friend Claire, and I wanted to give you my thoughts on it.
The play is on at the Bunker Theatre as part of their Breaking Out season, though it’s nearly finished its run. As I publish this post, there is one more performance on Thursday 5th July at 7pm. You can get tickets (including concessions) at half price with the discount code RNIBLIBBY. This is a new code for the final shows that I spotted on social media today, and is more generous than the code Claire and I used.
The venue is a short walk down the street from London Bridge station, if you come out of the right exit. You basically need to go straight ahead up the steps and escalator at the end of the Northern Line concourse, cross over in front of Natwest, then turn right and head down the street. After a few minutes the theatre is down a slope to your left. I used the Station Master app and Google Street View to figure it out in advance, so we were fine.
Inside, it’s quite dark relative to the bright outdoors, so it did take me a few moments to adjust. It’s a very small lobby area, with a bar that doubles-up as the box office, but then it is a very small building, created from an old underground parking garage. But there was plenty of space for us to chat over a drink from the bar while we waited for the show to start.
The auditorium itself is also quite intimate, holding around 100 people. I don’t think we had that many for the show, but there was a still a decent sized crowd there. We had comfortable seats in the front row, level with the stage in front of us, so we had a good close view.
The story feels a little bit like an episode of Black Mirror to me, in that it’s set in a dystopian version of the real world, not too far in the future, taking a current situation to a more extreme level and seeing how it might play out with more advanced technology. So you’re left thinking that it’s not altogether implausible, as it is quite close to reality.
Without giving too much away, Libby is given a “Reasonable Adjustments Robot” to assist her, as she is deemed to be a “functional” person by the government (as opposed to “non-functional”). It sounds useful, and it does appear to have its benefits. However, the robot has artificial intelligence, learning from its owner and data stored in the cloud. And consequently its programming evolves and adapts, causing it to behave and assist in ways the government didn’t intend. So the play is about the consequences of that, both on Libby and those around her, and raises interesting questions as a result.
Although such robots don’t exist in the real world, events in the play are nonetheless based on real life, especially the playwright’s experience of claiming Personal Independence Payments (PIP). And as visually impaired people ourselves, Claire and I were able to relate to or appreciate many of the situations Libby encountered, either from personal experience or through other people we know. If you have sight loss, or even other disabilities for that matter, you’ll identify with a lot of things here.
The tone of the show is a mixture of comedy and drama. There are funny lines and moments through the piece, many of which did make me chuckle, often because I could relate to them. But the more serious moments are given the time and focus they need as well. So there seems to be a nice balance, and it doesn’t get too heavy. It’s also very well performed by the cast, especially Georgie as Libby. The characters’ feelings and frustrations come across very powerfully.
My only slight criticism would be the amount of strong language. It’s not constant, but does come up fairly regularly. I take no offence to it, there are moments where it feels justified, and it does accurately reflect how some people express themselves in similar situations. But I do also think that using it too often risks reducing its impact, and there are parts where thoughts or emotions could have been put across just as effectively without resorting to swearing. So it doesn’t ruin the show, I still enjoyed it, but it felt like it could have been reined in a bit.
We also had audio description for the play, which I regularly use at theatres. But it’s particularly interesting in this case, because of the creative way that it’s integrated into every performance the show.
For a start, everybody can hear it, there are no headphones involved. You simply have a lady speaking into a microphone at the side of the stage, giving description in between the dialogue and during scene changes.
And this is important, because the description is for the sighted audience as much as the visually impaired. The set is very minimalist, with just a table and chairs and a few other small props to represent everything. So whenever there’s a scene change, and also at the start of the show when the stage is in complete darkness, the describer has to explain what’s happening so that everybody knows. So hopefully people with normal sight will gain some appreciation of how useful audio description can be from this experience.
The description is also presented in a very conversational manner, with humorous asides and other remarks injected into the narration. And that’s because the describer is actually another character, one that the others on stage are unaware of. And as the play progresses, the describer’s story evolves along with everyone else’s. To say more would give too much away, suffice to say it made the ending all the more interesting and unique. And I enjoyed this novel approach to it, as it added another layer to things in a manner that felt appropriate and relevant.
It’s also worth noting that captioning was being provided as well, as I was aware of a female member of staff bringing a laptop in for another audience member. She was explaining to them that she would control the captions on the laptop to begin with, but the audience member could take over if they wanted to control the speed themselves. So it’s nice to know that was available too.
So overall, I enjoyed the show. It’s a very interesting and important story, with a nice mix of humour and drama, and the actors are excellent at bringing it to life. The integration of the audio description is achieved well too. And it’s wonderful to see a play by a visually impaired author and starring a visually impaired actress, portraying the world of sight loss in a relatable and realistic way.
But the real audience who need to see this are the sighted community, because it highlights important issues and questions. It’s a great vehicle for awareness in that regard. So hopefully it gets people thinking about how disabled people are viewed and treated. And therefore I also hope the show continues beyond this initial run and reaches a wider audience. It would be a great shame if this month-long stint is all it gets.
Finally, a quick shoutout must also go to the Hixter Bankside restaurant just down the road, where we got a 10% discount from our theatre tickets. It’s not cheap, but we felt it was worth it as a treat, because the service was efficient and the food was very nice. We both had the Burrow Hill Somerset Cider to drink, which had a lovely flavour to it. And for my meal I enjoyed the Indian Rock Chicken Curry, with nice big chunks of meat, followed by a delicious Raspberry & White Chocolate Cheesecake, with lovely juicy raspberries on top.
So it was a lovely evening altogether. If Libby’s Eyes intrigues you after reading this, do see if you can get a ticket for the last show in the run on Thursday, with the discount code RNIBLIBBY, as it’s worth a look. But if you can’t make that performance, do follow the show on Twitter, as I’m sure they’ll post updates if it’s performed elsewhere in the future.