Award winning writer, poet, performer and rights activist, Penny Pepper presented her highly anticipated, unique one-woman show, Lost in Spaces at the Soho Theatre last Monday. Review by Colin Hambrook
Lost in Spaces interweaves poetry, short story, anecdote and diary extracts against a backdrop of images and music, taking the audience on a chronological journey through the life and times of one of the Disability Arts Movements' superbly talented, sexy superstars.
The show lifts off in the 1960s with the moon landing and Penny’s aspirations to be an astronaut: entirely possible in the limitless world of her imagination. Penny describes how it was through her love of words (she was taught to read and write by her father before she went to school) and her love of writing that she came to know herself and to express her refusal to be defined by the tragic but brave stereotypes imposed by a non-disabled world.
Penny’s readings from her diaries, drawn as precious objects from a beautifully ornate, large box in the form of a book, give tremendous value to the act of keeping a diary, as a testament to life’s pleasures and struggles. Penny also talks us through the books that she loved as a child. Heidi and The Secret Garden gripped her imagination, but contained no positive role models for a young disabled girl aching to find a place in the world.
Much of Penny’s storytelling through the show sits within the context of the Disability Movement through the 1980s and 1990s and its strength to empower and inspire disabled people with the Social Model and Art at its foundations. Inspired by the punk movement, the major thread running through the performance is life as an act of defiance.
She tells us about her friend Kay embellishing the side of her shaved head with the words ‘fuck off’. And Penny's poetry mirrors her sense of rebellion: ‘Special breeds/ Special spoon/ Special spunk/ Special sex.’ Penny’s delivery is riveting with the accompaniment of Jo-anne Cox’s cello. The atmosphere changes with just a chord and Penny becomes focused and at her most cogent and powerful as a performer.
The stories give breadth and depth to the poems, although the visuals and recorded music could be reigned-in and given more alignment to the spoken word. For example Penny tells a brilliant story about her pen-relationship with pop star Morrissey. A postcard is emblazoned across the screen showing the musicians famous spiky handwriting: “You write delightfully,” he says, “And yes, I accept the compliments. Believe you me, I need them.” It would have been wonderful to have heard the words read out; to have been given a fuller account of how an emerging pop star came to crave acceptance from a young disabled writer and performer. (I believe this was around the time that The Smiths Meat is Murder album was released in the mid-1980s).
The visuals generally, give a wonderful flavour of Penny's world, with photos of family and friends illustrating changing fashions and attitudes. However, it would help the pacing of the show if Penny could find a simple way of describing the images she uses and linking them more closely to the stories she’s telling. This would provide creative access for visually impaired people, and would also give all of her audience - and especially a younger audience who may not know the references - more engagement. Less is more.
Still in its research and development phase, Lost in Spaces needs more airing. It has undercurrents that cut through so much ignorance. For example Penny reads a couple of extracts from her collection of short story erotica, Desires, re-edited and published by Bejamo Press in 2012 as Desires Reborn. Funny, intelligent and moving, her recital of Girls Wank Too unfolds in a matter of fact telling of how it is for girls when the hormones start to kick in. The context is special school, but it’s a story of girls discovering their sexuality that goes beyond the disability context.
Lost in Spaces is festooned with important bits of history. Penny reminds us that using buses remains a political act for wheelchair-users, given the battles of the Campaign for Accessible Transport and the Direct Action Network in the 80s and 90s. She reminds us how painful and difficult it was growing up without any access to transport, to personal assistance or to work. She reminds us that the key expectation for young physically disabled people during her youth was a life in institutional care.
And of course, with the current closure for new applicants and the planned disposal of the Independent Living Fund, all the implications suggest that as a society we are rapidly making a backward step to a time when disabled people were prisoners in their own homes and in institutions, reliant on families and underpaid, ill-trained care workers for basic care provision.
So, “Come to Cripplegate/ Come to Cripplegate/ Come to Cripplegate Town.” The Ballad of Cripplegate provides a seductive, insistent, double-edged anthem for Lost in Spaces. The words, their rhythm with the striking chords from Jo-anne’s cello leave an indelible mark and an invitation not to be missed.