Sometimes the best moments in live theatre are those that happen unexpectedly. A hint of danger that something might go horribly awry keeps audience and performer teetering on the edge of 'what if’. It’s what’s kept circuses in business for centuries.
Her tics are her power, not her problem, she says. And they are powerfully liberating. Without an internal editor, Thom remains always in a mode of complete spontaneity.
So when Jess Thom, co-creator and star of Backstage in Biscuit Land, tells her audience that she might have a fit at any moment – for real, not pretend – she starts the countdown on a device that might or might not blow up in front of our eyes before the hour is up.
Happily for all involved, there were only fits of explosive laughter at Thom’s opening performance, a return to the Fringe with the show she debuted in 2014. Thom has Tourette’s syndrome, the neurological disorder characterised by involuntary physical tics and compulsive vocalisations, sometimes involving obscenities. Thom’s main tic is the utterance of the word 'biscuit’ thousands of times a day. She inserts it between other words, blurts it out randomly, along with other favourites 'hedgehog,’ 'cat’ and 'fuckit’. There’s no way to stop herself saying these, she explains, any more than you can halt a sneeze or stare without eventually blinking.
Backstage in Biscuit Land, devised with actor Jess Mabel Jones who shares the stage with Thom and gets plenty of laughs herself, tells Thom’s story. Her first physical tics were noticed at age 6 and her Tourette’s has progressed to where she is now, in her 30s, using a wheelchair because her legs are unstable. Thom wears pink padded mitts to soften the blows to her chest she can’t control. And she’s always ready with her printed list of emergency care instructions in case of … you know.
If this all sounds bizarre, it is. And it isn’t. Thom’s personality is so open and her willingness to show her real self, tics and all, to a live audience, quickly defuses any sense that it’s rude to laugh. This woman makes Tourette’s hilarious. During the show she repeatedly surprises herself with the things she barks out. 'On your mark, get set, knickers squirrel!' she says. Then she giggles at the silliness of the phrase. Thom is quick to put her audience at ease and her wit is irresistible, particularly her reactions to her own outrageous outbursts. 'Fish-finger cunt!' she exclaims at one point. Her big smile spreads across dimpled cheeks and she rocks side to side in her chair, 'Very rarely do I shock myself!'
Thom sticks closer to the script as she rewinds to the event that inspired Biscuit Land. After staying away from theatre for years, there was a show she was keen to see. She knew there would be difficulties, but despite getting the performer’s permission to be there and warning the staff in advance that she’d be making noise, she was shunted off to the sound booth at intermission after other patrons complained. The unfairness got to her. 'It was like they were telling me I didn’t have the right to be in a public space', Thom says.
Her tics are her power, not her problem, she says. And they are powerfully liberating. Without an internal editor, Thom remains always in a mode of complete spontaneity. That frees up her humour and allows the audience to enjoy the surprise of a suddenly shouted word salad like 'fingers in testicles of Nicholas Lyndhurst!' followed by Thom saying 'that’s not a game I’m prepared to play'.
This show is one big tasty biscuit all right. With a side of hedgehogs, fish fingers and squirrel knickers. 'This will be a relaxed performance', says Thom at the top of Biscuit Land. And it is.
The concept of the 'relaxed’ or 'accessible performance’ has taken hold in many American regional theatres and some Broadway houses. (The Lion King was the first Broadway show to have one and they’ve since had several more.) At these, adults and children with disabilities and disorders of all kinds are welcomed. Nobody’s behaviour is judged.