Spoonface Steinberg is an extraordinary little girl. Not only is she dealing with terminal cancer, but she’s also autistic, or as she puts it “backward”. And she’s only 8. Originally broadcast to great critical acclaim as a radio play written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliott, War Horse), award-winning Freerange Theatre Company are taking it on tour throughout the summer. We caught up with them during their stop at Chapel St. Studios.
This is a demanding part for any actress. Maintaining a monologue of this length exploring the childlike wonder of the dying Spoonface whilst containing all the tics and quirks of her autism must be a frightening prospect for any actress. Fortunately Rebecca Fenwick, playing Spoonface, is more than up to the task.
Fenwick puts her all into it to give an astonishing and touching portrayal. A complex, multi-layered performance, Spoonface is fractured by existence, possibly even failed by it. Fenwick plays this with a fervent intensity that is immensely watchable – and makes you forget you are watching an actress playing a part. Intensely personal, Fenwick puts in an immaculate performance that should take her far.
This is a play that will evolve with every performance. The audience that I watched it with were not entirely sure how to take the humour evident in the script. As one audience member put it, it seems churlish to laugh at the actions of a girl dying of cancer. But Fenwick’s performance is such that she seems to be seeking support or contact, possibly even validation (on behalf of Spoonface) from the audience. Her reaching out to the audience only serves to strengthen the emotional bond between you and character.
Some of this comes from Lee Hall’s writing, writing that isn’t mawkish or overly sentimental even. Spoonface’s exploration of a world she is about to leave is overwhelmed by a childlike sense of wonder as the pieces of her puzzle begin to slot together. Backed by Maria Callas’ haunting melodies, it manages to engage with you in such a simple and moving way.
Director Hugo Chandor has kept things interesting with the use of a minimal but versatile set. Indeed, the set up where the main stage is separated from your view as you enter almost gives some dignity to the sleeping Spoonface. A dignity that then you interact with as Fenwick directly addresses the audience. There a lot of lovely moments that Chandor and Fenwick have worked hard with and I’m not going to spoil here – it’s worth keeping your eyes on what’s she’s doing throughout the performance as she inhabits Spoonface’s character.
This isn’t the first time that Freerange have performed Spoonface Steinberg, but it’s easy to see why it is one of their most talked about performances. Indeed, it is likely to become one of the must-see performances of this summer. A tour-de-force of emotion in a contained and dignified way that is sure to leave you thinking long after the lights fade. Spoonface certainly proves that as Mrs. Spud puts it: “To be different is to be who you are”.
The Fiction Stroker gives Spoonface Steinberg four strokes out of five: