Little Miss Burden review – trauma, whimsy and 90s girl-bands

Arifa Akbar

Little Miss Burden begins as a Jackanory-style story, narrated by two grating TV presenters, about a girl with a physical disability. They are stopped in their tracks when Little Miss herself enters in her wheelchair to stake a claim to the narration.

Matilda Ibini’s autobiographical coming-of-age play dramatises the intersections of race, gender and disability. The point that stories of disability must be told by those with lived experience is robustly made: “We trust people to tell their own stories,” says Little Miss in the opening scene.

Ibini mixes humour with trauma to take us from Little Miss’s birth to the medical mysteries of her condition, which is eventually diagnosed as limb-girdle muscular dystrophy (LGMD). But before that come her mother’s denial of Little Miss’s condition and her two sisters’ insistence that they will one day form a 1990s girl-band together.

Little Miss, played by Saida Ahmed, is a lovable character and the script travels through her milestones, big and small, from amusing discoveries about sex to periods, binge eating, depression, self-loathing and finally to acceptance. No detail is spared, and there are a few extraneous scenes that add little dramatically and make the play feel overlong.

More problematically, the whimsical and humorous sketches push up against the serious subject matter and the tone begins to wobble; the comedy is not always strong enough and the darker moments are not sharply defined against this levity. The wavering tone dilutes the more impactful scenes of playground bullying, visits to a London church whose pastors insist that a divine miracle can “heal” her disability if only she keeps enough faith, and to a herbalist in Nigeria in hope of a cure for her genetic condition.

The pop band routines don’t quite work either; the sisters (Michelle Tiwo as Big Sis and Ani Nelson as Little Sis) act out multiple parts and while they are enthusiastic performers, the transitions are not always convincing and their musical routines look like hairdryer-dancing in a teenage bedroom. Even if this is deliberate, the results feel underpowered.

What this play does do successfully is show disability – a rare thing in theatre – and its full human drama. There are some light, irreverent and charming touches. The ideas are all there too, waiting to be honed into something shorter, sharper and more potent.