Combining such rampant hilarity with heartfelt dialogue and intelligently developed characters within just a 50-minute show seems a sizeable challenge; 50 Words not only succeeds but exceeds in this Herculean task. Rehearsed in Alex Zawalnyski’s living room, he and his childhood friend Luke Malone have expertly prepared a low-budget but high-quality minimalistic piece of theatre.
Zawalnyski’s portrayal of James is genuine and inspiring, and despite the immediate clarity of the character’s autism, he avoids building a cheap stereotype. Instead, with a clear understanding of what it means to be neurodiverse, he opts for a sense of depth that presents itself in many stunning scenes. Likewise, Malone’s performance as Alan, step-father of James and widower of James’s mother, is touching and paints a beautifully empathetic character. Finding themselves in unexpected circumstances after a ten-hour and thirty-two-minute journey to the Scottish town of Cromarty, the pair learn to live with each other, deal with their loss and gain mutual understanding of James’ autism.
James’s ardent preference for fact and honesty (‘my mother has died’) is starkly, and often comically, contrasted with Alan’s passivity and wishful expressionism (‘your mother is gone’). This is most humorously employed within several debates about the morality of joking – often jokes are lies, lies are bad and therefore jokes are bad. This joviality frequently pops up during the play, allowing brief escapes from the heavy emotional content, but not at the expense of continuity; the jokes and subtle ironies flow seamlessly within the plot.
On such a small budget, little is possible in terms of set design, yet Zawalnyski and Malone prove confidently that little is needed. A primary-school style backdrop of coloured paper and James’ childlike handwriting sits flat behind a plywood house, painted white with scribbled-on windows. The staging all looks like it has come out of James’ intelligent but immature mind, the ideal backdrop for this complex and emotional play.
50 Words presents a heart-wrenching and equally hopeful story. It is one that elates you and deflates you, then elates you once more as its characters struggle through a harsh reality, searching for a comforting mid-point: somewhere between reality and the kinder world of imagination.
50 words was on at Paradise at the Vaults
Image: Craig Giblin