Colin Cameron caught ‘Raspberry’ at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh on 9 April, 2010 at the start of its UK tour.
As we sat discussing the performance sitting in the Traverse bar last Friday evening my wife Maggie commented that as long as she lives, she will never forget the experience of sitting among what appeared to be a predominantly non-disabled audience with everyone singing along to the rousing, climactic chorus to ‘Cripple’:
Oh I love to be a cripple
Not a Raspberry or Ripple
But a downright dirty cripple
Whenever she sits in meetings with self-important and officious social workers who bleat “But of course we know all about the social model..." Maggie says she will remember that moment with relish. Because they don’t get it. They don’t begin to get it. Nobody gets it like crips get it.
I’d rate Garry Robson’s ‘Raspberry’ as one of the finest pieces of disability arts I’ve seen this century. Certainly in terms of theatre performances I’ve rarely seen anything that matches it. I’d like to describe ‘Raspberry’ as a sort of raucous disability arts parable. Because, like all good parables, meaning can be drawn from it on many different levels.
As soon as you looked at the stage set you knew this was going to be good. The hospital trolley, the anvil, the blackboard, the creepy physiological diagrams, the climbing frame, the montage backdrop, the black and white tiled floor, with the drum kit, the keyboards, the guitars. Much was promised. Slightly freaky, slightly Edward Scissorhands-ish, a little reminiscent of Frankenstein. Very atmospheric.
On comes the blacksmith (Jem Dobbs), wheeling his small, docile, crippled daughter Rita (Christine Bruno) onto the stage on a luggage trolley. He tips her onto the hospital trolley at the front of the stage.
He reaches for the hammer by the anvil at the end of the hospital trolley and begins to hammer at her callipered legs: to re-shape them, to re-shape her, to conform with an image he considers normal. She remains passive, uncomplaining, unchallenging, unresistant.
This is one of Raspberry’s central themes. It is about Rita’s entrapment within her father’s vision. She is flawed, imperfect, wrong, and needs to be corrected. She is subdued by her father’s incessant protestations:
“You will thank me... Can’t you see this is for your own good? You’ve got to remember this is for your own good... You will thank me soon enough...”
While her father’s is the only voice Rita ever hears, she is compliant. How could things be other than as they are? She knows she is deficient because her deficiency has been pointed out over and over again. Impairment is wrong. Normal is right. Normal is good. Impairment is bad. Not-walking is wrong. Walking is good. Just listen to your father. He has your best interests at heart.
They are joined on stage by Ray (Sally Clay, keyboards), Albert (David Stickman Higgins, drums) and Angel (Jamie Duffin, guitars), who together set up a banging and clattering rhythmic beat with sticks and hammers against a variety of surfaces.
The blacksmith plays a mean trumpet solo before the others take up their instruments and we are surrounded by a funky, bluesy, jazzy sound. It was distinctive and original, but with echoes and references to ‘Do It Yourself’ - the second album produced by Ian Dury and the Blockheads. We can hear Dury before we can see him.
The narrative is picked up and carried forward through the song’s lyrics. A sense is conveyed that, while she has accepted and internalised her father’s view, there is something still there, an inner voice perhaps, an aching, longing or a confusion, which tells Rita things are not as they should be, could be different: “He couldn’t see me All he could see was a raspberry”
She knows instinctively that being forced to reject her own physicality involves a rejection of self. But she doesn't have the language, the words, the tools, with which to articulate this sense of oppression. Most importantly, perhaps, she does not have the company.
The end of the first song sees the appearance of Spasticus (Garry Robson), wheeling himself to the front of the stage with a series of expletives and Cockney exclamations. This is Robson as Dury, gleefully alarming, rough-edged yet witty and warm and entertaining, mocking and irreverent yet charming. From the Dury-esque get up (bovver boots, two-tone coat, red neckerchief) to the razor blade ear-ring, pencilled sideburns, black eyeliner and skinhead haircut. Robson’s attention to detail is precise.
With his friends, Ray, Albert and Angel, Spasticus begins a process of enlightening Rita as to the true nature of her predicament. This is done with much humour, much of it quite dark humour, lots of swearing, frequent nods to Dury’s lyrics, and excellent music and songs, ranging from the bluesy jazzy, funky, punky stuff to moving ballads.
Spasticus picks up on what is going on here, the relationship between father and daughter, the pressures on Rita to become an imperfect imitation of a non-disabled rather than to be allowed to just get on with being her, and recognises that this is something he has already known:
When I was here before if you fell they’d let you lie
When I was here before, if you fell they’d let you cry... So no one picked you up, if they did you’d never learn
So no one cleaned you up, the stink would make you turn
I thought they were twats
But they thought they were teachers
Using clever ways
To civilize the creatures
Through the ongoing dialogue and action the situations of Rita and her father become clearer. The blacksmith himself had polio as a child, leaving him with a crippled hand. He is obsessed by a conviction that he is personally to blame for his daughter’s impairment. Her mother had found religion and run off to follow a preacher, abandoning them both. The blacksmith is determined he will not turn his back on Rita, but will instead repair her and turn her into ‘his little piece of perfection’. His overbearing oppressive care is explained by his own insecurities.
Spasticus questions Rita as to why her father only ever names her Raspberry. This is a pet name, she explains, a name given to her by her mother, and that her father keeps up out of affectionate remembrance. She is corrected by the Cockney geezer, who informs her that Raspberry is rhyming slang: Raspberry Ripple... Cripple.
Not, as he proceeds to explain, that there is anything wrong with being a cripple. Crippledom is to be owned and celebrated, an identity that, once embraced, sets us free from the oppressive and impossible requirements of normality:
Cripple is good
Cripple is class
You can stick your normal
Up your arse
It is at this point in the performance that the audience is invited to ‘get in touch with your inner cripple’ and join in the chorus. In case anyone feels uncomfortable about this, Spasticus helps by pointing the words out as they are sung, written as they are upon the blackboard:
Oh I love to be a cripple
Not a Raspberry or Ripple
But a downright dirty cripple
This is about ownership of identity. It is about rejecting the intense negativity and patronising judgements that disabled people have heaped upon them on a daily basis from disability industry professionals – teachers, social workers, day centre officers – from molly-coddling carers, from complete strangers and from disembodied others in the media.
It is about self-acceptance as the people we are and refusing to play along with their games. We see Rita tear off her callipers and walk unashamedly with her spastic gait towards the blackboard where she takes a piece of chalk and writes in emphatic letters: RITA “Raspberry!” calls the blacksmith. “Rita. My name is fucking Rita,” comes the reply.
In words reminiscent of Johnny Crescendo’s ‘Disabled people aren’t allowed to say ‘fuck’’, the father misses the point and scolds his daughter. “That’s foul language for a little lady,” he says.
Rita makes a defiant statement of self-affirmation. “I’m not different... I’m just me.” “But you are different... you’re special” comes her father’s response.
The discourse of specialness, of special needs, of heaven’s very special children, is an individualising discourse. It distracts attention away from the structural inequalities and barriers which make the lived experience of impairment in a disabling society the second-class experience it so often is. By the end of the performance Rita has rejected her father’s image of herself and has claimed her own identity as a cripple, or as an impaired person. She is not a flawed normal person: she just is who she is.
This by itself makes ‘Raspberry’ a very powerful piece of music theatre, but there is a great deal more that can drawn from it.
Central is the importance of peer support and collaborative action. This is a journey Rita could never have made by herself. On her own, the only voice she ever heard was her father’s, the voice of a dominant culture which can only recognise impairment as personal tragedy. It needed other disabled people to come into her life with a subversive perspective which says never mind the bollocks, it’s fucking great to be who we are, as we are.
It also worked as a tribute to Ian Dury. For many of us middle-aged crips, before there was disability arts there was Dury. He was a disabled person who didn’t seem to give a toss what other people thought of him.
Even though the majority of his songs weren’t about disability, his lyrics just couldn’t or wouldn’t have been written by a non-disabled. It’s about a way of looking at the world. Like Spasticus and his friends bursting into Rita’s life, having Dury there made it seemed like there was something far better than aspiring to normality and viewing yourself as a ‘failed normal.’
Go and see ‘Raspberry’ for yourself if you get the chance!