Death and the maiden

Heather Neill looks at the extraordinary popular appeal of Spoonface Steinberg, the radio play in which an autistic girl describes her life.

When Spoonface Stein-berg was first broadcast, on January 27, the response was overwhelming. An unprecedented number of listeners requested a repeat. Hundreds contacted the Radio 4 Helpline.

Less than a month later, on February 22, the play, an hour-long monologue spoken by a 10-year-old girl, was broadcast again. Again phone calls and letters flooded in. An extra member of staff had to be recruited simply to cope with "the Spoonface factor". Vicars called to say they were using the tape in church, teachers played parts of it in assemblies, and senior doctors gave it to their students. Many listeners poured their hearts out in long letters about bereavement and family crisis. Now Spoonface Steinberg, the fourth and last in a series of plays by Lee Hall, called God's Country, is to be released on tape as part of the BBC Radio Collection, and all four pieces will be published in book form in the autumn.

Yet when enthusiasts attempt to describe Spoonface Steinberg, they are likely to be met with a curled lip and a look of pity: sentimentality, the uninitiated seem to be thinking, has undermined the listener's critical faculties.

This reaction is, on the face of it, not surprising. Here is a summary: a seven-year-old autistic child describes her life in an articulate interior monologue. ("Spoonface" is a nickname conferred on her at birth, her rounded features being thought to resemble those of a normal person distorted when reflected in a spoon.) Her parents quarrel and split up. She is found to have an uncanny facility with numbers. Then she is diagnosed as having cancer. Chemotherapy follows, with its attendant hair loss, undignified lack of physical control and the contemplation of imminent death, enlivened by the reported wisdom of Mrs Spud, the cleaning lady, and bursts of Maria Callas singing heavenly arias from romantic opera.

But if the nation wept copiously, the tears were not sentimental ones. Because, in the end, Spoonface Steinberg is about hope, about the triumph of humour and love over misery, of honesty and directness over false gentility and pretence.

Its power is the result of a kind of radio magic - because radio is its natural medium and no other would serve as well - a coming together of exactly the right people with exactly the right talent, care and clarity of purpose at just the moment when people have a particular need to hear what they have to say.

The producer, Kate Rowland, is based in Manchester and has a recognisable style - there are those who claim to know "a Rowland" within the first two minutes of one of her productions. An ex-teacher, she is strong on combining human-interest drama with gritty social comment. Two of her earlier plays were written by prisoners and recorded "inside". Lately she has been working with Lee Hall, a 30-year-old writer whose background is in youth theatre in Newcastle (where God's Country is set). When Hall first wrote to the BBC offering an earlier piece for consideration, Rowland told him to go away and give it heart. Now they have arrived at a working relationship based on respect and co-operation, recognising each other's strengths. Spoonface Steinberg is their sixth combined effort.

And then there is Becky Simpson. However talented the grown-ups, the whole project might have toppled over into mawkishness if the voice of the speaker had not been young, with a natural sincerity and humour.

Add to these three remarkable people a stroke of radio genius, the courage to express emotion in lush operatic music. Lee Hall's text would be outstanding in any context, but the contrast between the child's down-to-earth attitude to death and the diva singing her adult heart out in the most colourful and exaggerated way devised by the human race adds a moving new dimension. The introduction of Callas is not gratuitous: Spoonface, locked in her "backwards" world, is robbed of the ability to communicate satisfactorily and seeks solace in music. More than this, the glorious diva always reaches her apotheosis, singing at the height of her powers, on the point of death.

Spoonface's monologue begins with her voicing this idea: ". . . she was all quavery and beautiful and everyone holded their breath for the poor lady, the poor lady who dies so well . . . (they) clap and cheer and have a little piece of beauty what's in the music".

Becky Simpson still hasn't heard the play in full. She doesn't like the sound of her own voice, she says. Besides, she's into Oasis, not opera. Her acting career has come about more or less by accident. Both her parents, Dave Simpson and Diane Whitley, are writers (stage plays and Grange Hill respectively) and Diane also runs her own production company. She is emphatically not the showbiz mum ("I vowed I wouldn't push her into it") and, indeed, Becky has no long-term ambitions in that direction.

She is, she says, good at English - something she puts down to "family influence". She's a top junior at a school in Manchester, the name of which her parents request should not be published. Among the shoals of positive letters, there were a couple of "creepy" ones addressed to the school.

Kate Rowland had been auditioning "little girls turning blue in a freezing church in Byker", Newcastle. No one was "right". She began, reluctantly, to consider casting a professional 18-year-old, when someone suggested Becky. She had previously been cast in three or four radio productions in the same casual way.

She was asked to read the beginning and end of the play. And that was it. Becky found the script fairly difficult at first: "It was a stream of thought with no full stops. And it was difficult because of what it's about." Her mother helped in the preliminary stages and Becky added some commas and a few notes in the margins.

The recording, directed by Kate Rowland, took place over two days. There were numerous breaks for Ribena and biscuits and "notes" for Becky from Kate. "She never looked as if she was listening - she had this way of swinging from side to side on her chair - but everything was going in."

There is a particularly harrowing section about the Holocaust. "We were more worried than Becky. She was smiling at the end and seemed OK, but we had a break and she made straight for her Dad, on to his lap."

Although the play seems to have touched a universal nerve, irrespective of age and religion, Spoonface's Jewishness is particularly significant at this point, and Lee Hall undertook extensive research, for the final stages, into the mystical beliefs of 18th-century Hassidic Jews which are not part of Orthodox thinking.

Spoonface talks of "sparks jumping between people . . . making sparks was to pray . . . Everything you do is a prayer. When you smile, that is a prayer, when you talk, that is a prayer, when you walk, that is a prayer, when you brush your teeth, when you give someone a kiss and mams and dads when they go to bed, that is a prayer . . . when you spit, when you suck, when you dance, when you snore . . . especially what you do when you meet other people because all the people in the world are in God's kingdom, and it doesn't even matter if they're Jewish." Spoonface's search for a meaning for her short life is both profound and childlike. It is never cloyingly "charming".

Similarly, her contemplation of death is moving simply because it is not self-absorbed; she never ceases to observe adult behaviour. "If I wasn't scared of when I wasn't born, why was I scared of when I wasn't existed at the other end? You can't feel the end or touch the end because it was just nothing . . . There were no real ends, only middles."

She acknowledges the sadness of things, but finds the time to feel sorry for Mrs Spud with her "three hungry mouths to feed"; the meditation on spirituality is interrupted quite unselfconsciously by a reference to poo in her pants which Mrs Spud kindly cleans up.

The word "poo" was Becky's own suggestion (to replace the more adult "shit") one of a couple of language ideas that Lee Hall was pleased to accept from her. He wrote the whole piece in a couple of days (after weeks of research into religion, autism and leukaemia). He is modestly surprised by the intensity of people's reaction - they always want to know if the idea came from personal experience, if he has a child: it doesn't and he hasn't. He puts the impact of the monologue down to the directness of the child's address, apparently speaking one-to-one to the listener.

In fact, this is a cunningly wrought piece; a child speaking naturalistically would have had nothing like the same effect. Hall says that he tried to capture "the way kids deform and use language creatively, which helps us see the world differently. It's really rich territory. I had to write it quickly, making connections you wouldn't necessarily make."

Each child in the four plays that make up God's Country belongs to a different religion: the whole series, while "inhabiting popular forms", as Hall puts it, deals with the question: What is faith?

"When you push people to extremes in drama, the more human they become, the more humour there is. That's what people respond to. A lot of new drama lacks a spiritual dimension. And there seems to be a taboo about children talking about death."

"Yes", adds Rowland, "but while she's talking about the spiritual, she's also talking about poo in her pants." Which just about sums it up.

Spoonface Steinberg will be available on cassette on April 7

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