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the interview: Musical that goes out on a limb; Thalidomide actor Mat Fraser tells Angie Sammons about his black comedy.

Byline: Angie Sammons

"IT'S HARD to hitch down life's highway with no thumbs," Mat Fraser observes wryly. And it is a fair point, so to speak, especially as it comes from a man who has spent his life giving polite society's more delicate mores and nuances, how shall we say, the fingers.

Mat Fraser is the UK's only Thalidomide actor, but forget any thoughts of arrested development. This is an acerbic 44-year-old delivering a rapid fire take on the world of the limbed and the limbless as compellingly as a round from a sub-machine gun.

Fraser is hard-edged, he admits, but then he has been around the block a few times - as a child, he was a perpetual traveller of continents, living on the coat-tails of his actress single mother - after countless excruciating episodes as the new kid in a succession of schools, he turned to drumming in rock bands for 15 years, later becoming what he describes as a ranting, angry poet. "And all with crap arms," he chortles.

Any other talk of his past he summarily brushes away. Fraser doesn't do autobiography, tempted as he might have been with his latest creation for theatre, the darkly "taboo-busting" Thalidomide!! A Musical.

"There is nothing about disability on stage," he says, shaking his head. "When there is it's either really old rubbish from non-disabled people who have no idea of the experience of disability. They use it as a metaphor for evil or a loss of manhood, or they use it in a very PC way, full of gentle stuff. And I'm not interested in either of those things.

"I want to develop a new audience where they are not frightened of the D-word. And it will really tell it like it is. Where we are now, in terms of society and culture with disability, we need a heavy dose of irreverence to counteract the telethon, the Hearts of Gold, the orgies of charitable Esther Rantzen-ness which do me no services at all."

A TV presenter and musician, Fraser wrote the songs and script for the show, and performs opposite one Anna Winslet who, Fraser asserts, is every bit on a par with her sister, the actress Kate.

Extraneous exclamation marks aside, it has drawn comparisons with the similarly titled Jerry Springer vehicle. But Fraser insists it makes Jerry Springer look tame, telling, as it does, the irreverent story of a man with very short arms looking for true love and respect in a long-armed-obsessed world. Can "short-armed" Glyn and "long-armed" Katie ever truly be in love? To give you a flavour of the palate, songs include Talk to the Flipper, I Can Be His Arms, Monster Babies and Ska'd for Life.

"It's a love story, like all good musicals," Fraser says. "But a sexual love story, set against the backdrop of the Thalidomide scandal. It spans 1961 to 1984 and all the musical genres within that time period. So you get pastiches of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Bob Fosse and even a Sinatra-style swing number.

"It's a bit of a will-they-won't-they, ah-yes-they-do-kind of tale, but I like to have a happy ending," he adds cheerfully. "It's slightly skewered by an horrific motor crash and the loss of some limbs, and throughout the show I wear a series of ridiculously bad prosthetic arms, as does Anna who has to play people who are not of her physique . . . well, obviously, in the show, I have to disable her at some point." A tour of the regions last year (following a premiere to wildly enthusiastic reviews at Battersea Arts Centre) prompted one outraged Wolverhampton councillor to argue that "To exploit people in this way is, frankly, sick".

"I'd like to thank him for doubling our bookings," Fraser counters.

"I love my subject. I respect and love disability. I'm very rude about it but you can tell within the offensiveness there is a person who likes his subject, not hates it.

"I often feel that when I listen to Stan Boardman, perhaps Bernard Manning, that they hate their subjects. I'm not interested in that. I have love in my voice, certainly about disability. However, I was called a spastic at school, and I do want to show people that, but I do want to make it funny."

He goes on: "It's a tall order. Some people may feel I've failed but I've only had one real complaint in the whole time I've done this show and that was from someone who'd been bullied a lot at school, and in a bullying scene was forced to relive it, slightly. Mind you, a lot of people who come to see this show were bullied at school and everybody loves the routing of the bullies that I present, because it's all what we wish would have happened in real life."

In the 1960s, pregnant women were prescribed the drug Thalidomide to combat morning sickness. The side effects from the drug were shocking. The most renowned result was Phocomelia, the name given to the flipper-like limbs which appeared on the children of women who took Thalidomide. Currently, there are around 420 affected adults in the UK.

"We are never going to have the front row all Thalidomide," remarks Fraser. "A lot of Thalidomide people - bless 'em, they're all my extended cousins - are very right wing and reactionary, you know. I've always been a weirdo, even to them."

The numbers of those affected put a West End run out of the question too. "Where would I get 25 short-armed dancers for the chorus?"

But Fraser still feels duty bound to pioneer confrontational theatre: "I want people to be able to laugh at all the stuff they feel they are not allowed to laugh at.

"I'm not some guy telling the same old jokes and hoping it's OK because I'm disabled. I like to think I'm doing something a bit cleverer than that."

THALIDOMIDE!! A Musical' Tuesday, October 17, Rose Theatre, Ormskirk.

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Mat Fraser and Anna Winslet share a touching moment in Thalidomide!! A Musical' Mat and Anna go South Pacific in the controversial show Pictures: BENJAMIN EALOVEGA
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Oct 6, 2006
Words:1023
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