‘Drizzle Boy’ was refreshing.
Ryan Enniss’ Queensland Premier’s Drama Award-winning play ‘Drizzle Boy’ is a bold, honest and wholehearted work that explores the underrepresented experiences of being a young person who is neurodivergent. Partly informed by Eniss’ lived experience and deeply motivated by presenting Queensland audiences with an authentic representation of an autistic young person.
Through the familiar foundation of monologues and narration, Enniss takes the typical coming-of-age story and breaks it apart. From the beginning, the story is compartmentalised, like a fractured puzzle of memories, questions and influences in Drizzle Boy’s mind. Through friendly, humorous and personalised narration from the protagonist, the audience is guided through bittersweet and traumatic memories from Drizzle Boy’s childhood. We also become confidants for Drizzle Boy, sharing in his hopes and dreams and witnessing the complex challenges he faces as he tries to unpack the allistic-centred world he lives in. As Drizzle Boy simultaneously navigates his first semester of university, butts heads with his parents striving for adult independence and hopes for a romantic relationship, he is forced to overcome to new, institutional challenges and tackle societal judgements head-on at every turn in the hopes of fulfilling his dream of being an astronaut. From the get-go, we watch Drizzle Boy ask what he is doing wrong while revealing the cruel and inhumane wrongs the world has forced upon him. While many of the stories explore the dark and barbaric history of medical experiments, at-home “cures”, and devastating and exhausting one-track pathways to societal acceptance and success, the play also combines satire, magic realism and playful romantic comedy-esque banter to depict how creative, unique and beautiful being neurodivergent can be. From start to finish Enniss’ writing is filled with hope and enthusiasm, with his curios and earnest protagonist eager to show us into his world on his terms.
However, for all of the leaps forward that Queensland Theatre does to promote the talent of a neurodivergent playwright and an amazing performance from neurodivergent lead Daniel R Nixon, cracks begin to show in the production’s muddied intent behind inconsistent accessibility choices and hope for universal relatability for a unique story of neurodivergent experiences. Director Daniel Evans claims that Drizzle Boy is an “anthem for anyone who’s ever felt a little lost, out of step, with the world around them”. Unfortunately, it is this approach – to encapsulate a specific, complex, and underrepresented experience and apply it to a broader issue of fitting in or sticking out, that unravels to present a production that forgets the importance of sticking to the work’s priority of portraying one very specific, underrepresented perspective through theatrical methods that are accessible, engaging and relatable for the very people it represents.
During the production’s opening, we listened to Drizzle Boy sharing his key rules for his story and, in turn, the production. These rules included depictions of experiences such as hyper- or hyposensitivity of touch being signalled with sirens and a yellow-orange light flashing like an alarm. Warnings for these moments, and moments with loud noises, were set up through glowing lights to allow for support with noise sensitivity. However, these warnings were quickly drowned out during the numerous music or dance sequences where roaming lights would pan across the stage and directly into the audience while loud Pop and RnB music would fill the theatre space. Most confronting and distressing for any audience member was a jarring contrast between bright lights and complete darkness accompanied by what many patrons described as one of the loudest sound effects in a theatre production they’d ever heard. In another production, Matt Scott’s lighting and Guy Webster’s sound design could have combined to create a powerful, immersive, and gripping environment. Unfortunately, for a story about a neurodivergent young man, one would have hoped the sensory overloads and confronting, distressing sequences would be treated with more sensitivity to its audience – especially those who truly needed the sound and lighting warnings or experience noise and light sensitivity.
Despite these production downfalls, during the show’s moments of modest clarity the creative team worked together beautifully. Christine Smith’s simplistic revolving set created a magnetic foundation for the stories that jump through time and orbits around characters in a playful homage to Drizzle Boy’s love of all things space. Meanwhile, Nevin Howell’s video design is at its best when complimenting the script with beautiful depictions of galaxy patterns and cosmic colour combinations.
Just as the production is most effective during frank monologues or unadorned depictions of raw human emotion, Enniss’ writing is strongest when focused on Drizzle Boy’s complicated relationship with his parents and his awkward yet endearing stumbles through romantic milestones with Juliet. With such a cacophony of design and production elements, the simple story of Drizzle Boy is at its best during one or two-handers where the three-hander cast can truly shine. While Naomi Price and Kevin Spink bring dedication and determination to the multitude of idiosyncratic characters such as The Cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, and Baphomet (Drizzle Boy’s dark, critical inner voice), Price and Spink demonstrate their deepest conviction and skill when given time to settle into a scene alongside Nixon.
With such a refreshing, important and honest exploration of how a neurodivergent person can experience the world, hope remains that Enniss’ story will continue on for new audiences in new productions. This work also offers hope for a continuation of performance-makers broadening the scope of what is accepted and, more importantly, embraced in the performing arts. I hope that untold stories from underrepresented voices continue to be shared with gusto. I also hope production teams continue to adapt and broaden their approaches to embrace and complement old, new, and neurodivergent ways of telling these stories on stage.
‘Drizzle Boy’ performed until Friday, 31st March 2023 at Queensland Theatre. For more information visit their website.