Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board – HOME, Manchester

Amidst the chaos of Brexit, it is easy to miss an important debate that happened in parliament this week. Fibromyalgia is a condition with ‘too many syllables to be anything other than shite’. It causes excruciating pain, chronic fatigue and forgetfulness (fibro-fog). After a petition attracted over 115,000 signatures, MPs debated this week whether fibromyalgia should be officially classified as a disability, increasing the funding and support available to the people diagnosed with it. People like spoken-word artist Conor A.

Conor A. received a commission from Manchester’s HOME theatre for his show, Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board, to be staged during their annual Push Festival. It is an autobiographical account of ‘getting better at not getting better’, accepting that things are not ‘grand’, and learning how to live again after being diagnosed with an invisible disability. The show focuses on therapeutic eavesdropping, a technique recommended by Terry the Therapist.


Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board is not an hour long lecture about a medical condition. In fact, Conor A. makes his show instantly welcoming and intimate, physically greeting people as they enter the theatre. A relaxing, comfortable atmosphere is created by soft lighting and a stripped back, homely set, comprising of a couch and piles of board games, books and a video screen. The audience is encouraged to move about if they need to, and remain lit throughout most of the show. A friendly, accessible environment is established, which makes it feel like you have been invited over to Conor A.’s house for a cuppa.

Conor A. combines an autobiographical narrative with videos and funny snippets of his overheard conversations, gathered from therapeutic eavesdropping in the Manchester Arndale and various coffee shops. ‘It’s not about where you stand, it’s about who you follow’. Terry the Therapist also makes an appearance in the form of a stuffed owl puppet perched on the arm of the sofa.

Naturally, Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board does get serious when the experiences of living with fibromyalgia are described. However, Conor A. skilfully manages to keep his show conversational and warm, rather than morbidly sterile. His talent as a performer is evident as he deftly controls the audience’s emotions, mixing empathy with comedy by contrasting moments of sobriety with amusing ‘overheards’ throughout his show.

It is easy to see how these snatches of overheard conversations can provide therapy, as they are genuinely funny. From people dabbling in falafel, worrying about belly-button fluff to Sexy Batman and cat cuddles – who knew that eavesdropping conversations in Manchester Arndale could be so entertaining?

Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board delivers plenty of laughs alongside a genuine, honest insight into living with an invisible disability. I have the utmost admiration that through the fibro-fog and pain, Conor A. delivers a funny, delightful show that teaches you to look at the world a little differently.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board is on again next week, 22nd January, as part of HOME’s Push Festival. Click here to buy tickets.

You can also read my interview with Conor A.

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