Tabitha Mortiboy’s “Billy Through the Window,” the product of Bellow Theatre, is probably as bad as a play can get when it has a cast this talented at its disposal. We are at the Cowgate Underbelly, in one of its smaller theatres. Hector Dyer and Joseph O’Toole play Billy and Joe, autistic children who have run away from residential care. They are pretending that they are “on holiday” but they appear to have barricaded themselves inside a local birdwatching hide. They drink Ribena, plot a raid on the nearest Tesco, and skirt with faint longing around the mysterious subjects of kissing and sex.
The essential problem with “Billy Through the Window” is that we are required to take it on trust that these adult actors are submitting faithful portrayals of autistic children. In the end, however, I found the children to be all rather unlikely. The actors crash through consecutive stages of hysterical excitement, anxiety and distress so smoothly and surefootedly that we might assume that they are piloting the authentic mental currents of autism. But the depicted children are strangely spasticated or out of sync in an overly pronounced way; they are labouring under a mass of calculated, even superbly choreographed, tics. The effect is initially mesmerising and then increasingly suspicious.
They are clowns, unavoidably clowns, and so much of the audience’s laughter at these autistic children is Bedlam laughter. When the children get drunk and fish out a spliff, we are supposed to laugh along to their wackiness. It is depressingly tasteless. Next, when the play becomes more urgent and wades into melodrama, it still appeals to an attitude of Bedlam prurience. We are meant to be thrilled by the children’s helplessness, by their spasticated incompetence, by how they stagger about on a remote psychological plateau where free will is in short supply. There is no profound point to “Billy Through the Window” beneath this ghoulishness.
Rather like David Gieselmann’s 2000 comedy “Mr Kolpert,” “Billy Through the Window” puts diabetes on stage, but it does this so inexpertly that it confirmed me in my scepticism about the play’s overarching account of autism. The architect in “Mr Kolpert” degenerates into paranoia as he runs out of food, but Billy is instead ordained to succumb to hyperglycaemia. This means that the poor actor ends up resembling the Very Hungry Caterpillar, constantly eating and drinking (cornflakes, chocolate, Ribena, beer) as he climbs the hill to incapacity. How mentally disabled children really manage diabetes is an interesting question which this play fails to answer. I nonetheless doubt that the results would be this disastrous.
I would like to report that the audience rioted outside the theatre, and yet they actually seemed to be moved by this play. Most of them rose once it was over to deliver a standing ovation. I am not out of sympathy with the audience here since there is undeniably a beauty to the play’s performances. Its morality, though, is repulsive.