Trailblazer Chloe Timms reviews the radio drama, Tinsel Girl and the Big Reunion
“It’s funny, isn’t it? Four hundred Facebook friends and I’ve never felt so alone,” says Maz in Episode Four of Tinsel Girl and the Big Reunion, which aired in a daily slot across BBC Radio 4 last week. It’s a moment of realisation for Maz, about what true friendship means and how much she has lost since she fell out with best friend and flatmate, Rachel. These complications of friendship, dependency and trust are the crux of this radio drama and universal in their themes, but what makes this story unique is its lead character, Maz.
Tinsel Girl and the Big Reunion – the second series of this comedy drama written by Lou Ramsden – was inspired by the life of actress Cherylee Houston, who is best known for her role of Izzy Armstrong in Coronation Street. She also stars as the titular ‘Tinsel Girl’ Maz, who, like Houston, has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and uses an electric wheelchair. Tinsel Girl and the Big Reunion sees Maz and best mate Rachel attend a drama school reunion, complete with a cheesy disco and awkward encounters, but when Maz learns Rachel was asked by teachers to be a “sympathetic” companion to her she begins to question their lifelong friendship. Her paranoia that she has become a burden to Rachel, and a series or misunderstandings, leads them to argue and Maz decides to move out and ditch Rachel in favour of new friends, ones she thinks won’t pity her or “see” her disability.
Tinsel Girl is an engaging piece of radio drama and the actors’ performances made it easy to invest in Maz and Rachel’s friendship. At the centre of the story, Maz makes an interesting and complex protagonist. Sometimes stubborn and selfish, she projects a tough exterior when wanting to go it alone, but underneath her hard determination she is vulnerable, questioning the meaning of friendship and its equilibrium of need and trust. Her best mate Rachel understands and supports Maz’s needs and that is a big part of why they are good friends, but Maz struggles to reconcile this with her own desire to be independent. Maz comes to realise that sometimes she does need Rachel and that’s okay too. This is a fascinating theme for the drama to explore as the balance between asking for help and wanting independence is an everyday aspect of disabled people’s lives which is rarely – if ever – seen in drama.
Maz too is a refreshing portrayal of a disabled woman – she parties, gets drunk, goes shopping, flat-hunting and hooks-up with questionable men. But the drama is honest too, showing the aspects of a disabled person’s life that aren’t identical to an able-bodied person’s – chronic pain, the strain on relationships, the ignorant questions and of course for wheelchair users – steps at the front door!
It’s not all serious. There are great subtle touches to Tinsel Girl that as a wheelchair user I found relatable and funny, for example, the taxi driver’s creaky ramps (hardly used) and his struggle to find an appropriate place to park with a curb, and without bollards. Then, during Maz’s flat-hunting there are the issues with accessing the house as Maz can’t go through the front door so instead she has to go through a nettled garden and behind the bins. Familiar experiences for many of us which definitely raised a smile in me!
I’d like to see more of this well-rounded and accurate representation in other dramas on radio and TV, showing the complexities of life as a disabled person. Often disabled characters in drama are in the periphery, represented simplistically, with either “being disabled” encompassing their entire plot or their disability never being mentioned or affecting their lives. Tinsel Girl and the Big Reunion is definitely the type of representation future dramas should be aiming for – enjoyable, compelling with a complex disabled character at its heart.
This five-part radio drama is available to listen to until the end of August on the BBC Radio 4 website.