Review: Purposeless Movements at the Festival Theatre
4★★★★

“Purposeless movements” is a medical phrase used to describe the impaired motor skills of a child with cerebral palsy. It’s characteristic of writer and director Robert Softley Gale, who has the condition himself, that he should turn a dark satirical eye to such a diagnosis. Because who’s to say a movement is purposeless? Couldn’t a spasm or an involuntary gesture also be beautiful? Might it not be as loveable a part of someone’s physicality as their height or their eyes or their manner of speaking?

So in this good-looking, funny and humane production for Birds of Paradise, revived by the Edinburgh International Festival, Softley Gale presents us with four men with cerebral palsy. He lines them up against a rusty-red wall and gets them to make their way to the front of the stage in their own time. Working with movement director Rachel Drazek, he choreographs their bodies with the same care and attention as if he were working with trained dancers.

Yes, they are clumsy and wobbly, yes, their actions take a supreme effort of will, but yes also, with Neil Foullis’s ravishing lights and Scott Twynholm’s compelling live score, they have a distinctive physicality of their own. Their movements seem expressive and emotional, not purposeless.

To underline the point, actor and comedian Laurence Clark tells a story about having a night out with his wife and leaving their baby in the care of two friends. One of them was having no luck getting the child to sleep, but as soon as the second friend took over, the baby instantly nodded off. This friend also had cerebral palsy and his familiar movements had comforted the baby. Not so purposeless now.

Using a kind of cabaret format, the show intersperses amusing anecdotes and touching testimonies with choreographed sequences that range from the funny to the violent. It asks us to consider these four male bodies (as well as Clark, there is Colin Young, Pete Edwards and Phillip Ryan, plus BSL signer Amy Cheskin) not only as physical beings but also as sexual creatures. They talk tenderly about awkward teenage desire being made more awkward still by their condition, about the normal human need for privacy and about the rare opportunity to be emotionally free in a lover’s company.

Provocative without being confrontational, it is a rich and intelligent production that cajoles even as it seduces.

Purposeless Movements, The Studio, Festival Theatre, 19-24 Aug, times vary

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