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14th October, 2018

Gala Theatre Studio

Review by Dani Watson

Five Years is a coming-of-age theatre piece written and performed by Neal Pike. The performance explores how we navigate through those complex years of adolescence whilst trying to forge a sense of our own identity. It is an autobiographical show, based on Pike’s own experiences of attending ‘Foxwood’ (a special educational needs school) in the late 90s.

Pike’s one-man show was held in the Gala Theatre Studio, on the final day of the Durham Book Festival. It was a relaxed performance, meaning audience members could come and go as they needed, and included a BSL interpreter, making it accessible to a wider audience.   

In Five Years, Pike made use of a minimalist set made up of only a few tables and chairs, which were moved around throughout the performance to represent changes in scene.  School-related audio clips (a bell ringing, the bustle of a playground) helped to evoke setting, but it was really the power of Pike’s writing which did all the work. His evocative, and at times beautifully poetic, use of language brought Foxwood School to life: its corridors, classrooms, and the people inside it. 

Pike narrated his former teenage self, navigating through the complexity of adolescence in a world determined to put people into boxes. The fluid narrative reflected on his relationship with his school mates, teachers and family, and was delivered convincingly by Pike, who held the audience’s attention throughout.          

Experiences of disability are not often explored or represented within theatre, so it was interesting to hear Pike’s first-hand account of life within a special educational needs school, and how it has shaped him into the person he is today. The story oscillated between witty and poignant, exploring themes of youth, sexuality, disability and sexual abuse.  

Whilst the narrative was predominantly upbeat, Pike’s performance did explore the challenges of disability in a society with a tendency to label and impose limitations on anyone who is outside of the considered ‘norm’. The flaws of Foxwood School, for example, became apparent near the beginning of the performance as Pike pointed out its contradictions, like the motivational posters of Winston Churchill which were plastered on the walls (despite his advocacy for the segregation of people with disabilities).

Another instance was the school’s refusal to allow Pike the role of narrator in the school play (on account of his stutter), despite him being one of the best speakers in the school. The fact that he is now the narrator of his own one-man show is testament to his ability to break through the societal labels imposed on him in his earlier years, and his performance gives a voice to others of similar backgrounds who may not have the ability or opportunity to express themselves. In spite of these challenges, the show ended on a hopeful note. Pike told the audience that, since his time in Foxwood, he has performed internationally and set up the UK’s first disability writer’s collective, among other achievements.  

Five Years is a powerful and thought-provoking theatre piece and deserves to reach a wide audience. I hope Neal Pike has the opportunity to take this show to other festivals and theatre spaces in the future.

This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.