“Skallagrigg” is a well-crafted and beautifully acted BBC production with solid theatrical potential. The marketing challenge will be to convince audiences this is not a story about disabled characters, but rather a story about characters who happen to be disabled.
Focus is the edgy relationship between John (Bernard Hill), a widowed, newly bankrupt businessman, and Esther (Kerry Noble), his palsied 16-year-old daughter. Years earlier, John turned Esther over to the care of a rehab center for the handicapped. Now he’s eager — and more than a little guilt-driven — to re-establish family ties. But Esther is too embittered to quickly accept a reconciliation.
So John agrees to take Esther and her two friends — Raj (Tom Tomalin), a dry-witted, wheelchair-bound cynic, and Tom (Karl Purden), a sweet-tempered fellow with Down’s syndrome — on a cross-country van trip. Esther wants to investigate the legends of “Skallagrigg,” a mythical protector of disabled people.
The travelers learn the legends have a real-life basis in the misadventures of Arthur, a palsied young man who, in flashbacks, suffers abuse in a residential center that makes Bedlam seem a model of enlightenment. The more John and Esther learn about Arthur, the closer they become. Eventually, their investigation leads them to the nursing home where Arthur is still alive, but just barely, and still under the domination of a sadistic brute.
Director Richard Spence and screenwriter Nigel Williams (working from a novel by William Harwood) do a terrific job of balancing the seriocomic realism of the present-day scenes with the fable-like heightened reality of the flashbacks. More important, they rigorously avoid cheap sentiment and facile romanticizing in dealing with their disabled characters, who are allowed to be crabby, short-tempered and, occasionally, witheringly sarcastic.
Spence has cast disabled non-pros in most of the supporting roles, which pays off handsomely. Noble is a genuine find, and Tomalin is deliciously sardonic. Despite their obvious speech impediments, they are always understandable, and often quite funny.
As John, Hill gives a performance rich in telling nuances and precisely chosen details, and Billie Whitelaw makes the absolute most of her small role as Esther’s grandmother.
“Skallagrigg” lets a couple of loose plot threads dangle, and owes a bit too much to “Rain Man” when the time comes to explain its title. Tech credits — especially Chris Seager’s lensing — are first-class.