dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
How having Tourette's resulted in a a whole new show
Jess Thom has Tourette's syndrome and in this show, currently at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, she opens the door and lets us into her world.
At the very beginning she warns the audience that she is given to involuntary tics which will result in unexpected words, sentences and sudden movements. And she tells us it's OK to laugh in fact she would find it weird if we didn't. In many ways the show is very funny. Jess's tics mean she won't stay on script and that is very much the joy of Backstage in Biscuit Land much of it is totally unexpected and everyone just goes with it. Nonetheless there is a consistency to the show in which we discover more about Jess and her life.
Backstage in Biscuit Land
The production is also a celebration of the creativity which can arise from Tourette's. The stage set is a jumble sale of oddities from a picture of Mother Teresa to a rubbish bin with eyes on it all of which was decided as a result of Jess simply throwing out a long list of words.
Jess is given great support by her 'assistant' Jess Mabel Jones also known as Chopin. Her quick thinking ensures she can match anything which Jess Thom can throw at her. It's clear to see the affection between the two women who support each other and bounce off each other's language during the show, which lasts just over an hour.
Jess' Tourette's makes her say certain words again and again we are told at the beginning to expect a lot of biscuits and a lot of hedgehogs and she certainly lives up to that claim. In fact Jess's Tourette's causes her to say or shout the word 'biscuit' around 16,000 times a day, hence the invitation to go backstage in Biscuit Land. The condition also causes involuntary movements including punches to the chest which Jess explains, telling us that she has to wear gloves to prevent her knuckles from cracking as a result of the repeated punches.
Jess Thom and Jess Mabel Jones
In fact Backstage in Biscuit Land is searingly honest. Jess shares with the audience some of her own difficult experiences and how people have reacted to her tics. In one monologue she describes a visit to see a show where she had spoken to both the performer and the theatre beforehand to explain her tics. The audience were also told. And yet in the interval the front of house manager asked her to move into a sound room behind the stage because other audience members had apparently complained. Jess shares how awful that experience was so terrible that she 'sobbed' through the second half and did not return to the theatre for a year.
Chopin also shares an experience of being on stage in a show which Jess attended. On this occasion it was a 'relaxed' performance in which audience members were welcome to move around or make noises. The contrast couldn't be more stark - here Chopin tells of how having Jess, and her tics, in the audience was an enriching experience.
Jess is one of the ten per cent of people with Tourette's who has swearing tics and there are certainly a few blue moments in the production but it's hard to care when Jess's response is simply to shrug her shoulders as if to say 'well I did warn you '
Backstage in Biscuit Land is heart-warming and funny but there are also moments of discomfort. It forces us to question our own attitudes towards difference as Jess shares her experiences. She is keen for us to try to understand that so when she explains a tic she asks all the audience to try not to blink and when they do so, she likens that involuntary movement to her tics.
Jess tells us that one of her friends, affectionately known as Leftwing Idiot, once called her a 'language generating machine' and it's certainly true in Backstage in Biscuit Land. What is so special is that she has used this machinery to create a performance which is not only enjoyable but also gives us plenty of food for thought.