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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 October 2005, 13:14 GMT 14:14 UK
Thalidomide gets musical treatment
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News website age & disability correspondent

The story of Thalidomide - the drug that resulted in more than 400 disabled babies being born in the UK in the late 1950s and early 1960s - has been made into a musical by one of those affected.

Actor, writer and musician Mat Fraser has written and stars in Thalidomide!! A Musical which will tour venues around the country from 4 November - 3 December.

Photo of Mat Fraser and Anna Winslet dressed up to the nines
Song and dance - Fraser and Winslet tell the thalidomide story

"I don't believe any subject is too dark for comedy or musical theatre," Mat Fraser told BBC News.

His show is a two-hander with co-star Anna Winslet.

It is Fraser's personal take on the history of the drug from the German laboratories in which it was developed, to growing up as a Thalidomide child facing a wall of prejudice and entering the adult world, coming to terms with disability.

Being a musical, the show has a love story running throughout between Glyn - a Thalidomide boy - and Katie, who falls for him at school but who becomes obsessed with his short arms.

Muppet inspiration

Fraser says he found working on a documentary about the drug for Channel 4 a gloomy experience, and wanted to inject some humour into the subject.

"I wanted to get a catharsis going and shrug off all the negativity that I had when learning more about the drug," he said.

With a cast of only two, the piece moves quickly from scene to scene and calls for flexibility from the performers as they assume the roles of the various characters, and perform song and dance routines in a range of styles.

As well as playing Glyn, Fraser has to step into the role of a number of long-armed characters for which he uses a variety of contraptions based on broomsticks, with hilarious results.

He says these were inspired by the Muppets.

One of the most common effects of Thalidomide was to cause babies to be born with flipper-like hands - a condition known as phocomelia.

"I love being able to laugh about things like flippers because hopefully I've done it from a place that isn't so disrespectful," he said.

"And I love having a long-armed person having their arms tied behind their back and then having to wear short hands to look like one of us."

'Cupboards of paranoia'

Photo of Mat Fraser towering over Anna Winslet in country and western gear
The performers sing and dance in a range of styles

Fraser's classmates would frequently do this at school, which he found painful and embarrassing.

"It's great to blow all those cobwebs out of my cupboards of paranoia," he said.

The show has a very non-PC take on disability - something that Fraser drew upon when looking for his co-star.

"At the end of the audition, I asked them if they could impersonate me."

Some of the actresses were clearly uncomfortable - one actually refused to do it.

But Winslet came on and, in Fraser's words, "flipperised", walking around the room on the insides of her feet with her tongue stuck in her bottom lip.

"I had a look at the script and it had everything in it - it's hilarious, has multiple characters and was really so challenging," she said.

For Winslet, going from one extreme to another - in one scene she has abnormally long arms and in another short, flipper hands - is part of the appeal.

And controlling her mirth is a constant battle, admitting her co-star can leave her helpless with laughter.

"Mat is wonderful, very amusing - too comical at times - and I do have a tendency to corpse."

Having performed Thalidomide!! twice to London audiences, the pair are now about to embark on a regional tour where Fraser is unsure how his dark humour will be received.

"I'm stealing myself for a few heated debates in the bar after the show," he said.

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