Follow the Signs – Soho Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writers: Chris Fonseca and Harry Jardine

Director: Harry Jardine

Theatre is a continuing conversation and in the last couple of years there have been some really interesting changes in who gets to join in. Who can stand on a stage and tell their story is changing, as are the techniques and methods applied to that cultural expression. Chris Fonseca and Harry Jardine’s 55-minute show Follow the Signs at the Soho Theatre is an exploration of Black and Deaf identity using BSL, hip hop and dance as both tools of communication and modes of performance.

A biographical show, Fonseca reflects on his formative years, taking the audience from the 2-year-old who contracted the meningitis that caused his deafness, through his school days to finding a likeminded crowd at university. Shaped by the opinions and prejudice of others for so long as well as his own fears of otherness, Fonseca learns to embrace his identity.

Follow the Signs is ultimately a celebration of language in all its forms, a piece that puts signing as performance centre stage as Fonseca enacts his history and the complexity of those experiences. There are multi-layered meanings in the rhythms and style of the movement of Fonseca’s hands and arms that both tell the story itself through BSL while also evoking the emotions, tones and emphasis that have their own physicality through the body.

Dance and music sit alongside this as important but wordless forms of connection, so the ways in which BSL and dance start to blend together are both exciting and innovative. Hip hop is a base layer for the show which has almost a musical theatre structure, mixing sung and scripted performance in different ways to vividly convey aspects of Fonseca’s story and the socio-political points about the failure and limitations of societal structures – especially those like education that are designed to educate, nurture and protect but too often endorse uniformity and conventionality.

As a result, some sections are hard to watch, especially as Fonseca recounts his experience of racist bullying in which he is literally stoned by classmates who mock his speech – and it is interesting here that vocals, on the whole, are provided by Jardine or by DJ Gaia Ahuja for fellow performer Raphaella Julien. But the system fails Fonseca too. “I’m on a harder level of different game,” he states, and while much of that is given a satirical spin including the patronising ‘clown school’ speech therapy class, the inadequacies are pointed.

And that pressure doesn’t just come from the outside. In a powerful section, Follow the Signs reflects on gradations of identity where the cast convey the intolerance within their various communities, either being considered not Black enough or even not Deaf enough. The cumulative effect of this is to make them feel “wounded”, “hurt” and “exhausted”, exasperated descriptions of loneliness and isolation that are the result.

But there is joy here too; the audience learns the BSL alphabet in song and is encouraged to sign along where possible, particularly when the young Chris meets friend Raffie and they bond over their love of music, resulting in a dance-off that showcases the talents of both performers. It is a shame that the show ends without charting Fonseca’s subsequent move from audience member to performer and the equally difficult journey to being heard. But on the main stage at the Soho Theatre, the vibrant Follow the Signs has something important to say and we’re finally listening.

Runs until 27 August 2022

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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