The Unlikely Life of Leonard Langley, Courtyard Theatre, London ★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Leonard Langley is a bit of a bad boy. Up in court for a charge of drink driving, the sentencing judge is so weary of seeing him, so tired of hearing “I couldn’t help it”, that she commits him to an experimental prison ship. Only, we know that Leonard really couldn’t help it – his erratic driving was caused by a loss of motor function. While he has not been diagnosed, Leonard has multiple sclerosis.

Lacuna Theatre’s one-act play seeks to raise awareness of MS with The Unlikely Life of Leonard Langley, although at times at the start it feels as if it is doing the opposite. As Simi Egbejumi-David’s Leonard stutters downstage, the play’s author Teresa Zoers-Taylor, in the guise of a storyteller, and fellow performer Rebecca Briley prance around him, rearranging the metal crowd barriers that comprise the play’s set, describing Leonard’s life and symptoms. It is a risky move, for it has the potential to dehumanise and objectify Leonard, and goodness knows people with disabilities have had more than enough of that over the years.

Gradually, that sense of overbearing exposition gives way to allowing Egbejumi-David to lead the portrayal of Leonard. Through dialogue and physical movement, the pyjama-clad actor expresses the frustrations of a chronic condition which can flare up in different ways at any time. And while the life on a prison ship, presented more as if it’s a children’s fairy tale, does not quite work as a framing device, it does at least place Leonard away from the possibility of diagnosis, and in several situations where his condition leads him to be unable to perform the various physical acts required of him. In that respect, Zoers-Taylor’s script helps explain some of the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, but the bizarreness of the fantasy setting leaves a feeling of disconnectedness that detracts from Egbejumi-David’s character even as it allows Briley to demonstrate some versatility in a variety of characters,

When those trappings fade away, and the stage concentrates more on Florencia Guerberof’s butoh choreography, the play steps its game up considerably. The presence of Zoers-Taylor’s storyteller, so overbearing initially, is explained, even if a little too late. It is this final sequence that really gives the piece its power, combining explanation about the symptoms and repercussions with MS with Leonard’s determination not to be defined by his condition. In a show that is sometimes frustratingly self-consciously quirky, those moments when the eccentricities are dialled down become the play’s strengths.

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