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‘I find the backlash upsetting but I believe in what we’re doing’: Charlie Brooks defends her role in a play about autism

Family tensions: Charlie Brooks with puppeteer Hugh Purves as Laurence

CHARLIE BROOKS is no stranger to controversy. As murderer Janine Butcher in EastEnders she faced public vilification. But that can’t have prepared her for the storm of indignation about All In A Row, the emotionally-charged play that centres around the family of an 11-year-old autistic child on the night before he is sent to a residential home.

Charlie plays mum Tamora opposite Simon Lipkin as dad Martin. But their autistic child, Laurence, is played by a puppet. And that’s where the problems began. Campaigners, who started an online petition to have the play shut down, have said using a puppet dehumanises those with autism. Even the National Autistic Society was unhappy over the play ‘due to its portrayal of autism, particularly the use of a puppet to depict the autistic character.’

That online storm of indignation culminated in a 12,000-strong petition and a public protest outside Southwark Playhouse on its opening night this week.

‘There has been a bit of backlash on social media,’ says Charlie. ‘I find it upsetting but I really believe in what we’re doing. People are entitled to their opinion. All we ask is for people to see it before making a judgement.

‘Writer Alex Oates worked with autistic people for ten years, as did Sian Kidd who designed the puppet. They were both carers and deeply involved with families who faced this particular challenge. It is an authentic story based on personal experience.’

Charlie says she received positive feedback from some parents of autistic children who saw the play before it opened. ‘Three mums came to see the play. One of the mums had been in this precise situation last year so it was very moving. They showed their support. I’m proud we’re giving a voice to something that’s so important.’

The issue at the heart of the play is Tamora and Martin’s dilemma over placing their son, who is non-verbal and occasionally violent, in residential care.

‘The play explores how they’ve arrived at their decision,’ says Charlie. ‘It’s not black and white, it’s very complicated. When you feel someone else might be able to take better care of your child it’s an almost impossible decision to face. We have Laurence on stage to show their absolute love for their child and there are some distressing scenes showing what they have gone through. It’s about the parents’ relationship and how they’ve got here. It asks questions such as, “Is Laurence better off at home?” There is no right answer…’

Now audiences can judge for themselves. Reviews have been mixed. ‘I hope it raises awareness and resonates with people who are in this situation,’ says Charlie. ‘That it opens conversations and raises questions.’

There’s only one way to find out…

All In A Row is at Southwark Playhouse until March 9, southwarkplayhouse.co.uk