We are delighted to have performed Stephen Lightbown’s response to our Humanistan provocation. We had a wonderful evening on 12th August 2021 with a sold out performance at the Shop Front Theatre plus the release of a recorded version of the show. Huge thanks to all the team for pulling together to make this work accessible and in particular to Stephen of course, for his powerful, funny and urgent writing.
Below is a review of A Life With Pip by Stella Backhouse – and there is also a link for you to watch the show – we’d be grateful if you would share this link with others too.
Just over half way through ‘A Life With PIP’, Stephen Lightbown’s monologue which is the second presentation in Theatre Absolute’s Humanistan series, Stephen holds up the clipboard-with-a-face-drawn-on-it that represents the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) benefit, and stares into it as if it’s a mirror. It’s the only moment when two different versions of Stephen come together: the version who actually is, and the version who is reflected by Personal Independence Payment.
According to the feelgood text on the website gov.uk, Personal Independence Payment “can help you with some of the extra costs if you have a long term physical or mental health condition or disability. The amount you get depends on how your condition affects you, not the condition itself. You’ll be assessed by a health professional to work out the level of help you can get.” As a wheelchair user, Stephen is entitled to PIP. The problem is that to redeem that entitlement, he has to stop being the person he knows himself to be, and be instead the person PIP wants him to be.
The idea that the self has multiple versions is neither new nor unique to disabled people. But most of us can exercise at least some control over the self we expose and the space we expose it in. For PIP, there is only one self: the physical self and more specifically, the bodily functions of the physical self. So while Stephen dreams of blasting off in a spaceship, “PIP seems determined to keep bringing it back to how do I take a shit”.
Embedded within ‘A Life With PIP’ are a number of different stories. There is the story of Stephen the angry twenty year-old, paralysed and in denial, finally having to accept that his choice is between going through the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) assessment procedure, or forcing his mother to take a second job. There is the story of the Stephen who, because his condition won’t change, was promised benefits for life without the need for repeated assessments – only to find that when PIP replaced DLA, the bureaucratic “autopsy by biro” (Stephen’s background in poetry frequently makes itself felt) began all over again. There is the story of the Stephen who feels justifiably humiliated by an assessment process whose fundamental premise is that claimants are dishonest.
These tales of frustration will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has tried to claim PIP. But there is a wider relevance here. Theatre Absolute’s Artistic Director Chris O’Connell has said that an aim of the Humanistan programme is “to…provoke us to consider that the social and political systems that surround, and arguably are currently failing us, should not be allowed to define our experiences of ‘being human’”. What we witness in ‘A Life With PIP’ is a real-life, sharp-end illustration of this. At its centre is a real human soul that, instead of being in control of its competing identities, has become trapped by them; Stephen’s howl of pain is the pain of being caught in the crush between the person he knows himself to be, and the person the system is telling him he needs to be.
And what he needs to be is not someone with dreams to dream and potential to fulfil. What he needs to be is a collection of bodily functions; what he needs to be is someone whose whole life can be reduced to a yes/no checklist with no room to explain the subtle nuances of individual experience. And without wishing to detract in any way from the particular hardships faced by disabled people, this is a situation everyone can recognise. Because deep down, every one of us knows there’s something inside that cannot be reduced to binary; something that needs room to explain the subtle nuances of individual experience.
The counter-argument is that the taxpayers who fund the benefits system deserve assurance that their money is being well-spent. But what is meant by ‘well-spent’? To answer that, perhaps we first need to probe more deeply what is meant by ‘human’. ‘A Life With PIP’ does exactly that, and the Humanistan project as a whole promises to deliver much more of it. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
by Stella Backhouse (‘A Life With PIP’ reviewed online 12th August 2021)
Watch the pre-recorded online version here & please do share:
Filmed/edited by Rachel Bunce.