In Backstage in Biscuitland, Jess Thom welcomes everyone into her surreal world, sits them down and offers them a biscuit. You may remember her from a really colourful and fascinating, interview she did on the Russell Howard show Good News. Tonight (Sat 12 March) is the fourth date of her UK tour at Kardomah 94 – part of Heads Up Festival in Hull.
Jess is an exceptionally funny performer with a wondrous mind filled with a world of ideas. It is not just the presence of the outbursts, but the rich poetry and fine detail. Her language patterns and word choices are so colourful and niche. She connects ideas and objects together that are bizarre, but they are also in some strange way, very beautiful.
The idea she will berate the street lamp for being brighter than the moon makes perfect sense to me. Attaching personalities and human traits to inanimate objects, animals, anything really, seems a perfectly reasonable way to make sense of the world.
I guess we all think we know about Tourettes or Tourettes syndrome. We imagine a noisy individual, who drops expletives into every other sentence; inadvertently shouting things like ‘bomb’ in the airport. We excuse this behaviour because at some time or other, we have been told, that they can’t really help it. We are probably aware these outbursts are called ticks, but the chances are, we haven’t really thought about what that means, what life is actually like for someone with Tourettes.
In Backstage in Biscuitland, Jess will say ‘biscuit’ 16,000 times throughout the show accompanied by punching herself in the chest. That bit is uncomfortable to watch, the idea of someone constantly hitting themselves, and having no control over it, is really hard to take. There’s also somewhere a niggle to do with laughing at the afflicted… right at the beginning of the show Jess gives us permission to laugh, to laugh with her, to laugh at her ticks, the same way she does.
That’s the first thing I learn, Tourettes is not just vocal ticks, there’s bodily ticks, jerky movements from arms and legs, head, torso that can happen at any time. Jess is very knowledgeable about tourettes, she explains her own unique neurology; then describes variations of tourettes and that tourettes is a condition that can fluctuate – peak and trough – during a lifetime.
Jess has created this show with the help of another performer also called Jess who is there to support her during the performance, introduce props – there are many – and to gently coax the narrative in the right direction. I can see that there would be a very real chance, if left to Jess, the show could literally end up anywhere.
Jess has a lot to say, not just about her own condition and how she manages it, but how society tries to manage her. There’s a few stories that make you want to rise up, punch the air and shout out against the injustice of it all. How dare they treat her like that she’s a person for Chris’ake. Sat as calmly as she is able, Jess speaks very movingly about personal freedoms, segregation and disability rights, citing comedian Francesca Martinez as a particular inspiration.
Behind all the humour in Backstage in Biscuitland, is a message asking that performances and opportunities for creative expression, be open to all. Through the organisation Tourettes Hero ‘Changing the world one tic at a time’ Jess wants to see theatres and all public places being more inclusive, not making people who are differently abled, feel unwelcome and unwanted.
That’s the show I saw, what you will see is likely to be different because as Jess explains she has no control over her ticks, anything, anytime, anywhere can become a tick.
Backstage in Biscuitland at Kardomah 94 Alfred Gelder street Hull 8pm
Tickets available: http://www.headsupfestival.org.uk/