- Born with cerebral palsy, Lee Ridley has been unable to speak since birth
- On stage he uses an iPad with a text-to-voice app
- The manager of Ridley's favorite football team praises his bravery
- Lost Voice Guy invites his audience to laugh along with him at his own disability
Lee Ridley staggers onto the stage at London's Soho Theatre and squints into the darkness at the sell-out crowd. It's the first paid gig in his short career as a stand-up comedian. The microphone stands in the spotlight in the centre of the stage but Lee doesn't approach it. He doesn't need to because he has no voice.
Under the stage name "Lost Voice Guy," Lee is fast becoming the talk of the town.
Born with cerebral palsy he has been unable to speak since birth. Off-stage he uses a somewhat cumbersome machine which resembles an electric typewriter to convert his words to speech. On stage he uses an iPad with a text-to-voice app.
Lost Voice Guy thanks the audience for their warm welcome and adds: "I haven't felt this important since the doctors said I was going to be a special child."
Encouraged by the laughter he continues, referring to his difficulty walking.
"I know what you were thinking when I walked on. It's OK I'm used to it."
Having apparently played on the sympathy of the audience he switches the joke.
"You thought 'here comes another ****** with an iPad.' Well I'm not. I'm a disabled ****** with an iPad -- the difference being I paid for mine with my benefit [welfare] money." Don't tell David Cameron. He still thinks I cannot walk, can barely see and have a problem with my bladder. Unfortunately for those closest to the stage -- one of those facts is actually true."
He's into his stride now and has the crowd on his side.
"In case you were in any doubt I really am disabled. It's not just really good acting and I'm definitely not just in it for the parking space.
"When I realized I would never be able to talk again I was speechless."
Ridley continues, talking about his synthesized voice, a mature male English accent which he refers to as a "posh version of Robocop" and demonstrates the limited alternatives he had to choose from including a woman's voice, American accents and a German translation.
But just when things are proceeding smoothly, disaster strikes and technology kicks him in the seat of his pants. After an uncomfortable silence Ridley recovers with a little improvisation.
"Sorry Ladies and gentlemen, my iPad has just crashed. Where the **** is Steve Jobs when you need him?"
As the laughter continues he's up and running once more.
"I am not related to Steven Hawking in any way. However I do hate the way people take the *** out of the way he speaks. I can really synthesize with him!
"People have often asked me why I want to put myself in a position where everyone can look and stare at me. The truth is that it happens to me every day any way. At least this way there's a scheduled time and place for it."
He finishes his set with an account of his audition for Simon Cowell's "X-Factor" with a dead-pan spoken-word version of "I believe I can fly" leaving the producers unsure how to handle him. With that he thanks his audience and lurches off the stage with loud cheers ringing in his ears.
Just as Ridley thinks the night cannot get any better he bumps into one of his heroes -- not a comedian but the manager of his favorite football team, Newcastle United.
Manager Alan Pardew is warm in his admiration. "Let's be honest -- it takes incredible bravery to do what he's doing. More bravery than me or any of my players show to do what he's trying to do. So all I can say is that I wish him all the best in a very tough business. Our business is tough but his is tougher so I wish him all the best."
I suggest to Ridley that his act creates a dilemma for audiences: in normal circumstances it would be offensive for people to laugh at someone's disability but Lost Voice Guy invites his audience to laugh along with him at his own disability
Ridley begins typing and about a minute later his machine gives voice to his thoughts. "I've also thought that any subject can be joked about if handled correctly. I think I can get away with more because it's essentially about me. I'd like to think the audience go away with a more positive view about disability."
The bookings have begun to roll in -- Ridley has been hired to perform at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe, attended by many a talent booker in search of the next comedy breakthrough act.