Reviews Theatre

Thalidomide!! A Musical

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 09 February 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:369
  1. Aula Abbara, preregistration house officer (aula.abbara{at},
  2. Huda Al-Hadithy, preregistration house officer
  1. Central Middlesex Hospital, London

    The thalidomide disaster of the 1960s and the subsequent cover ups of devastated lives is not the most obvious subject for a musical or even satire, yet this production works beautifully. Written by and starring Mat Fraser, who was a thalidomide baby, Thalidomide!! A Musical is a hilarious, poignant, and touching show that charts the life of Glyn (played by Fraser), and his quest for happiness with his childhood sweetheart, Katie (Anna Winslet), who is infatuated with him and his short arms. The two talented leads maintain the audience's interest throughout with their energy and inventiveness.

    At the start a mock-chilling voiceover takes us through a brief history of thalidomide. Developed by Dr Heinrich Muekter (a Nazi party member) and subsequently marketed in 1957 by Chemie Grunenthal, a German, state funded pharmaceutical company, thalidomide was available as a sleeping pill and anti-emetic during pregnancy. However, it was not researched adequately and was responsible for the physical deformities of thousands of babies; what followed were denials by the drug company, which refused compensation and continued to profit from drug sales. More than 400 British infants born in the 1960s had phocomelia or amelia (birth defects in which there is absence or shortening of limbs), the talented, defiant Mat Fraser among them.

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    A “PC-free musical with a short-armed punch”

    Fraser's tone is both angry and humorous, his lyrics sardonic and occasionally bitter. The tunes and words are catchy and move from the dramatic “Monster babies, Monster babies, A vision from Hades, Worse than rabies” to the cringingly funny “It's Hard to Hitch Down Life's Highway With No Thumbs” to the touching ballad “I Can Be His Arms.”

    This is an exhilarating production that takes the audience through a rollercoaster of emotions from guilt, tragedy, and despair to hilarity, and encompasses sign language, singing, salsa, tap dancing, and even puppetry. It is a manic run through Glyn's life, taking in his father's suicide after Glyn's birth and the horrified gasps from mothers at an antenatal class, with the two leads playing all characters at all stages. The funniest and most poignant is when they enter the awkward teenage and university years, and Glyn starts to question Katie's adulation, rejecting her desire “to help him reach the top shelf.” Bizarrely, the relationship is consolidated when Katie loses her arms in a car crash; it is unclear what Fraser seeks to portray with this twist in the story.

    Billed as the “PC-free musical with a short-armed punch,” Thalidomide not only challenges its audience, but also calls into question the traditional range of topics deemed fit for musical theatre; for the most part, it is successful in its aims.


    • Written by Mat Fraser Battersea Arts Centre, London, until 12 February 2006

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