Writer: Nina Raine
Director: Kate Hewitt
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
The regional premiere of Nina Raine’s 2010 play explores relationships from the perspective of Billy, born deaf into a hearing family. More accurately they are very much a talking family: bantering, arguing, debating, insulting one another, using sarcasm to mock one another, belligerent and boisterous. Deaf from birth, Billy uses hearing aids and lip reading to try and stay in touch with the linguistic maelstrom which swirls around the dinner table and make sense of the war of words around him.
Billy’s father, Christopher, is a teacher turned critic; his mother, Beth, a novelist; his brother Dan is trying to produce a thesis on language, and his sister Ruth is trying to become an opera singer. Both his siblings have failed to establish themselves independently and have returned to the family home. The family is cultured and academic, witty, wilfully eccentric and unconventional. Billy himself has just returned from university and is trying to fit back into the turmoil of family life. He has also formed his first real relationship, with Sylvia, who is following in her family’s footsteps and gradually losing her hearing. The relationship with Sylvia forces all the family to face up to the realities of their relationship with Billy, and their response to his deafness.
The scope of the play is not as narrow as this outline might suggest. The ‘Tribes” of the title are not only the deaf people who socialise together because they have a common language in BSL – but who also have their own caste system for classifying status according to the nature of the hearing loss. The family is also a tribe, with its own rituals and habits – good and bad – whether inherited or learned, and its own pecking order to be fought over. The dinner table which dominates the studio stage is also a battlefield; the weapons may be words but these can still lead to casualties.
The weaponry itself is impressive. When Billy’s family are at their most argumentative, the “craic” is formidable, and the pace of the insults traded, the mockery inflicted, and the lampooning of one another bristles with abrasive energy: An Oscar Wilde soiree on speed. In quieter moments, other aspects of the bonds uniting these warring factions are revealed, but rarely without an ironic twist: Dan warns his sister that “abusive love is all that’s on offer here.” Language not only sparkles in the dialogue and frenzied arguments, it also affords a central theme, as the limitations of expression – whether spoken, signed, or sung in Italian – are fought out within the family.
Director Kate Hewitt has kept the set simple and used few intrusive techniques to spice up the drama. A display screen helps to translate signed or garbled messages but is used sparingly. Music breaks up scenes, or “white noise” effects indicate the chaos in characters’ minds. Lighting changes are subtle, and scene changes more subtle still. Everything seems to work effortlessly, so a lot of effort must have gone into it.
It may be true that cast members become a “family” for one another (or possibly a “tribe”) in the course of preparing a production, but acting one on stage as one cannot be guaranteed to work. A cantankerous Simon Rouse as father Christopher and Lindy Whiteford as his combative wife provide a convincing parental model for their squabbling offspring. Oliver Johnstone is compelling throughout as Billy’s brother Dan, whether cruelly baiting his parents and sister, or later bereft and wordless at the apparent loss of his brother from his life. Emily Howlett gave a wonderfully nuanced performance as Sylvia, caught between the family factions and by the turmoil of her own transition from a world of hearing to one of silence. At one point she plays a piano that she herself cannot hear, mesmerising those who can. Ciaran Stewart and Louisa Connolly-Burnham completed the family portrait, carefully and credibly balancing the bile and venom, with the underlying support and affection.
The play’s conclusion is entirely appropriate for a family led by a couple of ageing hippie intellectuals. Love Is All You Need sang the Fab Four, and love descends on this fractious family like a Deus ex Machina at the play’s conclusion, healing their wounds, and binding them together. By that time, the emotional engagement of the audience is so secure, that everyone is hoping for a Hollywood ending and grasping for the Kleenex. The play does not disappoint on this, but nor does it need to apologise for delivering it.
Runs until 22 July 2017 | Image: Mark Douet