A council has been accused of “censorship” after banning disabled actors from performing a play that highlights the harm caused by the government’s much-criticised “fitness for work” contractor Atos Healthcare.
The play was to be performed as part of a Christmas celebration for over-50s in the east London borough of Newham, one of the host councils for London 2012, which was itself sponsored by Atos.
Further questions about the council’s motives were raised when the announcement that the Olympic Stadium – in Newham – would be hosting the 2017 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships was made on the day the play was due to be performed.
Sir Robin Wales, Newham’s mayor, said that hosting the championships would “underline our commitment to enhancing opportunities for people with disabilities”.
His council had claimed that the play was “not sufficiently entertaining or festive” to be performed for the audience of over-50s.
The Act Up! Newham Community Performance Group was due to perform a shortened version of Atos Stories, a play written by two activists – one of them disabled – and based on the experiences of disabled people who have been assessed by Atos.
The group – most of whom are disabled people – now plan to perform the full-length play for the first time early next year.
The play was to have been part of the line-up at Newham council’s Over 50s Celebration at Stratford town hall yesterday (19 December).
The council had asked Act Up! to perform several months ago, in exchange for providing free rehearsal space.
But just two days before the event was due to take place, the council told Act Up! – Newham’s only inclusive theatre group – that it was cancelling the performance.
Members of the group were “shocked and outraged” at the council’s decision and held a protest outside the event, handing out leaflets to members of the audience as they arrived.
Yvonne Brouwers, chair of Act Up!, who has directed and produced the play, accused the council of “censorship”, and added: “It’s a wonderful play. It is about social justice. What is wrong with that?”
She pointed to the Christmas stories of Charles Dickens, including A Christmas Carol, which discussed issues of social justice.
In a statement, Act Up! added: “We all felt that the council’s argument that the play was ‘too political and not festive enough for the over 50s event’ did not make sense.
“Many Christmas stories are political and it is patronising of the council to decide for themselves what ‘over 50s’ would enjoy.
“We believed that they cancelled the play because of the subject matter, as it is about disabled people’s struggles against Atos and the work capability assessment.”
A council officer had emailed Brouwers to say that the council was “not satisfied that the performance will be sufficiently entertaining or festive for a group of older people celebrating Christmas”.
She claimed council officers had “requested details of the proposed performance for logistical reasons”.
Brouwers said she had refused a request to show the council the script, but had assured them there was “no chance” the play would run over the 30 minutes allocated to them, and that the group had been “working really hard in order to make the play as entertaining as possible for the event”.
A member of the Atos Stories Collective wrote on its blog that the group was “shocked” by the cancellation of the performance, and added: “We wrote Atos Stories because we were mad at Atos.
“We wanted people with disabilities and without to have [a]vehicle to challenge the work capability assessment in a creative and dramatic way. We thought Atos might stop that from happening. We never thought a local council would.”
Ju Gosling, director of the Together! 2012 disability arts festival, which was based in Newham, said the council’s reaction had been “ridiculous” and “Scrooge-like in the extreme”, and added: “It is hard to believe that it is not connected with the fact that Atos was a Games sponsor.”
She said: “It is extremely disappointing that in the year of the Paralympics and the Together! festival, something like this should have happened.
“Social justice absolutely underpins Christian belief and some of our most famous festive works – such as A Christmas Carol – are very much about social justice.”
She said Together! would be working with Act Up! to find it a venue to perform the play in Newham in the new year.
A Newham council spokesman denied that the decision to cancel the Act Up! performance was linked to the IPC’s 2017 announcement.
He said Act Up! had been “asked to provide details of their proposed performance but this was not forthcoming”.
He said: “We do not consider political satire or potentially distressing material to be in keeping with the theme or tone of this event.
“Officers have therefore decided to cancel this element of what will be a festive and light-hearted event.”
He said the council had “worked well in the past” with Act Up! and “would hope to do so again”.
20 December 2012