It's not the quickest or most dynamically performed Not I you'll hear, but there is plenty of fresh insight by Jess Thom into the text.

The lights fade to dark and Jess Thom is suspended eight feet above the ground. A specially designed hoodie illuminates only the lower half of her face, namely her mouth. This set-up resonates with how Not I is traditionally performed, as per its prescriptive direction. Except here, Thom is in a wheelchair, on a raised platform, and she has Tourettes. She makes movements and sounds, tics, which she can’t control.

We hear the character Mouth’s monologue laced with Thom’s own involuntary additions – “biscuits” and “cats” – yet the actor makes sure we don’t miss a single word of Samuel Beckett’s text. Thom delivers with clarity and vigour; it feels as if we have a moment to soak up each syllable, even though she capably maintains the quick-fire pace that the piece is famous for. You can tell the actor has sought direction from Grime.

We’re told that Beckett didn’t write for the intellect but for the nerves, and Thom honours this, bringing the words together to create a rhythm that is felt rather than deliberated. It’s not the quickest or most dynamically performed Not I you’ll hear, but there is plenty of fresh insight into the text. Thom’s interpretation draws parallels between Mouth’s experience and her Tourettes, and her performance adds new shades to Not I’s palette. The repetition of Mouth’s “buzzing” is striking alongside Thom’s recurrent “biscuits”, and her tics only fuel her commanding portrayal of a character who has sudden urges to explode into speech after long bouts of silence.

Thom isn’t the only actor with a voice onstage. There’s a spotlight on Charmaine Wombwell, who is busy overcoming the challenges of reconstructing syntax and interpreting Thom’s tics in BSL. Side by side, the pair redefines the boundaries of who can perform this piece and of who can watch it.

Not I is about isolation, but Thom reminds us that it’s also about human experience at its core. The 12-minute monologue is bigger than Thom and Charmaine – it’s about all of us. This comment on inclusivity draws together the monologue with the other two elements of this hour-long show (a documentary-style video and an audience discussion) and acts as an inspired framework to house the question of how theatre caters for disability both on and off the stage.

Every single performance of this run is a relaxed performance, welcoming anybody with any disability, something which is astoundingly all too rare in theatre. Thom reinforces how important it is that each and every one of us feels comfortable throughout. She discards the “etiquette” we’re familiar with and opens our eyes to what a theatre space can be. Not I is a joy to experience, even more so because it is truly for all, as all theatre should be.

 

 

★★★★☆

Not I runs at Battersea Arts Centre until 17 March 2018. For further information, please visit the venue website.