'Lost in Spaces' by Penny Pepper - theatre review

image of Penny Pepper (c) Fiona Essex

'Come to Cripplegate Town'. 'Come into my space'. It's the end of a heartfelt, funny and touching performance by Penny Pepper. This extraordinary woman is a writer, poet, performer, musician and model.'Number 1 in the Greek Indie Charts' she reveals at one point, with a sense of humour at exactly the right time. She is also a passionate campaigner and lobbyist for the rights of disabled people; particularly in the face of the ignorant, callous and cruel. Her anger at those responsible for the current attacks on the financial support of disabled people is, thankfully, never far from the surface.

For those who may be unaware of her work, Penny Pepper has been prolific in all of the above for many years. Her recent 'Desires Reborn' is a collection of erotic short stories which I really enjoyed. One of the stories Penny performs in tonight's show is called 'Lava Lamp' and it is intense and sensual. She has also written for ‘The Guardian’ in addition to other magazines and blogs. Penny has won many awards and regularly performs all over the country.

An excellent writer and raconteur, Penny is able to evoke situations, people and places. She is eloquent in revealing aspects of the lives of disabled people; the everyday things that simply don't affect those who are able bodied. The indignities and fears as well as the practical issues of living as a disabled person. Penny Pepper allows a glimpse of things you need to have experienced in order to fully understand them.

Tonight in 'Lost In Spaces', Penny read certain poems and extracts from the journals she's kept throughout her life. Recollections of the events and people that made her who she is. Her honesty and courage are inspiring and there are many moments tonight that are moving. Penny isn't afraid to reveal dark moments along with the high points; and at all times, she holds the audience in the palm of her hand. Real stage presence. Through spoken words, photographs and music, we are presented a selection of vignettes based on her experiences.

To begin with, vintage videotape shows Penny. The music is hers too (her band Spiral Sky). I noticed the camera focusing on a portrait of either Kier Hardie or William Morris. Either I imagine have resonance for somebody who believes in real values and is prepared to stand up and be counted. Throughout the show, Penny doesn't hide her contempt for Thatcher and the rest. The insidious growth of Freebooter Capitalism in our society at the expense of the lives of real people. One of her funniest poems asks what Thatcher keeps in her handbag. Funny yes, but poignant.

Poignant also is the accompanying music composed and performed by Jo-Anne Cox. Her wonderful facial expressions are complementary to Penny's. Another feature I liked was the 'big book'. This prop (by Beck Firth) was a book-shaped box that contained all Penny's journals and material. She would begin each segment by sipping a drink ('R' Whites Lemonade to start, then on to the Smirnoff), then take out another paper. Another good aspect of the staging was the inclusion of someone signing.

Along the way, we are privy to significant photographs and other documents shown on screen. Pictures taken by Penny's late father, those (along with newspaper cuttings) showing the years of her personal discovery and identity, important musical references. Music of meaning that formed the backdrop to her life. Also included is a treasured postcard from Morrissey and she admits 'Without Morrissey, I wouldn't be here now'.

The idea of personal reinvention that came with Glam and Punk was pivotal to Penny Pepper. She talks to her alter ego onstage, reliving special moments. The liberation of this concept changed the lives of many people. The licence to become the person you want to be simply by being that person.

Near the end of the show, Penny considers whether her life will be seen as having an impact. It's a question I guess most people ask at some point, don't they? I found it quite a moving moment because by asking this, it forces us to re-evaluate our own ultimate significance. One of the poems at this point contains the words 'Special Needs'. It brought back personal memories of my school.

Several times the audience are invited to participate. Once to try Penny's 'Mashed Potato'. Cheeky in context. We are also asked to critique the show and answer the question 'What does independent living mean to you?'. The point being the imminent threat - in spite of the Court of Appeal's ruling that the Government's decision to close the fund is unlawful - to the Independent Living Fund.

In conclusion, I thought this performance a great success. Penny Pepper managed simultaneously to touch her audience, make them laugh and think. To feel things that are important.

(C) Gideon Hall 2014
'Lost in Spaces' reviewed at the Soho Theatre, London 8 September 2014

'Lost in Spaces' will be performed at DaDa, The Festival of Disability and Deaf Arts, in Liverpool on 2 and 3 December. http://www.dadafest.co.uk/
Female Arts review of Penny Pepper's book 'Desires Reborn' http://femalearts.com/node/312

Author's review: