Bristol Theatre Reviews

Review: Vulnerable Voices at Loco Klub

Vulnerable Voices, delves into the lives and social care of people with Learning Disabilities and those with mental health conditions, as well as the volunteers and staff who support them.

Written with an authentic voice and including disabled actors in the cast, the play has relationships and a sense of community at its heart. It passes knowing commentary on social care and also serves as a queer coming of age story.

The warm-hearted drama is also at times extremely funny, with cheeky moments breaking the fourth wall. Rebecca Parr, as the voice over author of a self help book sets out the comedy bar early on.

Photography: Cath Potter

Dumped by Jessica the day before his 18th birthday, Ellis finds himself finishing education with no job or planned higher education. Jessica, his now ex, has secretly applied to university, soon to leave her Yorkshire home for Bath.

It’s the 2010s, a time of David Cameron. Big Society. The start of cuts impacting on vulnerable communities. Not forgetting boy bands such as One Direction – one of Ellis’ favourite bands. A phone charm dangles from his vintage phone.

The story is told through a series of flashbacks. Ellis is updating Jessica about what he has been up to over the last five years. Following his birthday, he signs up as a volunteer at a hub for disabled people. The hub aims to support disabled people into employment – a grand total of one person so far – as well as provide social opportunities and paid work.

This is all done through ‘Person Centred Plans’. Although as anyone who’s ever come into contact with plans rooted in social care, transition plans or even Education Health Care Plans, without the driving force of individuals making sure they’re implemented, they’re often pipe dreams, even if they contain statutory duties.

This is reflected in the play, with a balance of staffing showing how it is individuals within a system that make things work.

The charismatic Ben – played by Sam Barnard – who is one of the hub users, dreams of becoming a writer. By the end of the play he’s an unpaid litter picker. Is he happy? Maybe, but it’s not quite the Person Centred Plan created for him.

The infantilising of disabled people within universal services is touched upon further during the play. Nathan – played by David Bourne – is not considered for a paid job. This is despite being a dedicated and highly skilled volunteer with Lived Experience. The rejection is simply because he is bipolar. The idea of job sharing or implementing the reasonable adjustments and support necessary to help Nathan become successful in the role simply doesn’t occur. The fall out of this is catastrophic.

Ellis’ burly northern dad simply cannot understand the idea of volunteering in the first place. Why do something for free when it should be a paid job? It shows how the sector desperately relies on the good will of volunteers. This translates to real life as well, where volunteers are often used as a shortfall in council social care budgets, particularly those around Direct Payments.

Ellis – played by Walter Hall – a geeky young man with a sense of fun but also quite restrained in nature falls for Nathan, another volunteer. The growing relationship that develops between the pair is convincing and well cast.

Whilst Ellis embraces his love for Nathan, he also struggles to define his sexuality having never fallen for a man before. He can’t recognise himself as either gay, straight or bi. ‘Don’t put a label on it’, his friend Joel – played by Chris Harris-Beechey – suggests. Joel clumsily tries to support his friend, blundering in with all the wrong words in front of his good intent and banter, upsetting his more sensitive pal.

Nathan also struggles with the idea of commitment to a relationship despite being clearly committed to Ellis.

We know at the start of the play that Ellis is no longer in a relationship with Nathan, instead, living in a house share with his now former best friend’s ex girlfriend Zoe – played by Charlotte Bakewell.

Each flashback reveals more clues, building to the full picture of what happened and the tragic events explaining why Nathan is no longer in the picture.

At the heart of the play is the hub, demonstrating the strong importance of ensuring community spaces and opportunities are available to disabled people to prevent isolation. They’re always the first places targeted by Local Authority cuts lists. Vulnerable Voices shows why they should not be, as well as exploring the importance of the disabled community being able to access high quality activities and provision when attending them.

It also shows how anyone can become a Vulnerable Voice, with being abled always only temporary. Jessica in the years since her split with Ellis has become fragile, needing care due to experiencing domestic abuse as well as developing cancer. Ellis himself finds his mental health shattered by the turn of events. He is supported through the love of his family and girlfriend as well as his friend Jessica.

The play is an ensemble piece, with a strong cast bringing the story to life. It’s written by Owen B Lewis and George Harold Millman, based on Lewis’ novel of the same name. The informed writing means it never descends into a pity party, nor shows disability as a head tilting sympathy story.

What is particularly refreshing about this piece of theatre is that the writing appeals to a wider audience who recognise themselves, their coworkers and characters represented on stage. There was a strong vocal appreciation from within the audience throughout. It was a perfectly pitched and truly inclusive piece of theatre. It provided a safe space for members of the disabled community often excluded from theatre both in terms of representation on stage as well as physically in the auditorium.

There’s currently very little in the way of theatre representing disabled people let alone those with Learning Disabilities. The tide is turning very gradually and its from the fringe the driving force of the work continues to come.

Vulnerable Voices is at the Loco Klub again on 25 May 2023. Whilst it’s a play for absolutely everyone, it’s fantastic to see companies writing, producing and staging plays which gives representation to maginalised communities and makes sure their voices can be heard.

For more information or to book, visit:
YouTube Shorts

Bristol Theatre News at Backstage Bristol contact us through email or social media