Victoria Wright learns never to put an elephant in an envelope after experiencing Jess Thom, aka Touretteshero, and her accomplice Jess Mabel Jones performing Backstage in Biscuit Land as part of Unlimited at the Southbank Centre.
As the audience walked into the small Blue Room at the Royal Festival Hall and started to sit down, you could already hear Jess Thom, aka Touretteshero, behind the stage curtain.
‘There’s nothing behind the curtain!’
‘Rumour has it I might be behind the curtain!’
‘I am behind the curtain!’
And so began Backstage in Biscuit Land, a wonderfully funny two-woman show about life with Tourettes syndrome.
For Thom, her Tourettes manifests itself through verbal tics, particularly the repetition of ‘biscuit!’ and ‘hedgehog!’ thousands of times a day, and a physical tic which causes her to slam her fists into her chest. Thom’s tics burst out like a surreal game of word association, and I’m still chuckling at the line ‘Stan Collymore thinks about Mother Teresa’s envelopes!’
Thom is joined by Jess Mabel Jones as her faithful and equally funny sidekick whose role is to try to keep the show on script as much as possible. Thankfully this rarely happens as the real genius of the production is just how far off the script they end up going thanks to Thom’s Tourettes.
According to Thom, 300,000 people ‘and one penguin’ have Tourettes in the UK. When you have Tourettes, we learn, ‘making tea is an extreme sport’ and she shows us how the simple act of eating strawberries ends up a rather messy experience. ‘Anyone fancy a smoothie?’ she quips, mashed strawberry dripping off her forehead.
‘What does having a tic feel like?’ asks Jones. ‘Like being fingered by an albatross!’ replies Thom. (According to the Guardian’s review of her Edinburgh Fringe show, she described it as ‘like being fingered by an oven glove’ which at least one could try out at home. For research purposes, obviously.)
When Thom isn’t changing the world ‘one tic at a time’, she’s also a children’s playworker. She tells the story of how she tried to teach a 7 year old girl how having an uncontrollable tic felt like by comparing it to blinking. Trying not to tic is like trying not to blink: "It hurts when I try not to blink", said the girl. They had a no-blinking competition.
"She won. Motherfucker!"
Rude, a bit sweary, yet tender-hearted and immensely likeable, Thom is bit like a cross between Joan Rivers and Audrey Hepburn. Never has the word 'motherfucker' sounded so sweet.
Being able to enjoy the theatre or a comedy gig is not something Thom herself is often able to do. A few years ago, she went to see a show by the political comedian Mark Thomas about the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict. She’d informed the theatre and Mark Thomas about her Tourettes beforehand and originally felt welcomed. But after complaints from some audience members during the interval, the management unsubtly asked her if she could move to the soundbooth (Mark Thomas was unaware of this).
"I felt humiliated, embarrassed and alone", Thom recalls, the irony of the show‘s theme of the hideousness of apartheid clearly lost on those who complained. You would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by Thom’s experiences of segregation. Motherfuckers, as Thom might say.
Thom and Jones recall how their creative friendship first began. Jones was working as a puppeteer on a production of Beauty and the Beast and Thom attended an accessible ‘relaxed performance’. She spent most of the show repeating the word ‘Alan! Alan!’ but right at the moment of the show’s romantic climax, Thom shouted out "Keith Chegwin is Dead!" which unsurprisingly caught Jones’ attention. A woman came up to her at the end of the show to thank her. Her late husband was called Alan and she felt that Thom’s tic had been a sign that it was okay for her to move on and experience love again. It’s a poignant moment in the show. Tourettes, Thom realises, "is my power and not my problem".
Backstage in Biscuit Land is a joyful, warm and funny show. There aren’t many productions that can successfully link together a tree, a penguin, Mother Teresa, Oprah Winfrey and a toilet u-bend. If Monty Python ran disability awareness training with a feminist twist, this would be it.
"If my show has one message", Thom concludes, it would be "never put an elephant in an envelope!"
I might make that one my new life motto.
You can see Backstage in Biscuit Land at the Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11, from 18-20 September at 8:30pm
Price: £12, £9 concs