Writer: John Godber
Director: Jeni Draper
Reviewer: James Garrington
John Godber wrote Up ‘N’ Under as an attempt to recreate the famous Rocky movies, set in Yorkshire and with a backdrop of Rugby League in place of boxing. It’s a classic underdog story. The Wheatsheaf Arms seven-a-side team is a bit of a joke – they don’t have seven players, have never won a game, and the only training they do is in drinking rather than rugby. Thanks to a bet, Arthur finds himself trying to train them to beat the mighty, unbeaten Cobblers Arms in a crunch match in just five weeks time.
This production by fingersmiths adds an extra twist to the plot – the team is deaf and Arthur doesn’t sign. The comedy is performed by a cast of four deaf and three hearing actors, and uses a combination of spoken English, captioning, voiceover and British Sign Language (BSL) to deliver the dialogue. This adds an interesting dimension to the piece and means that every performance is accessible to an audience that is – if Press Night is anything to go by – predominantly deaf, though it also creates additional challenges in the process.
The play starts with a pseudo-Shakespearean prologue reminiscent of Henry V, setting the underdog tone right from the outset. The captioning immediately becomes important as much of Tanya Vital’s speech is lost, struggling to compete with a slightly overpowering background sound effect – a problem that crops up regularly throughout the performance and is hopefully a first-night glitch. Alongside the role of Narrator, Vital plays Hazel, the owner of the Gym where the team are eventually persuaded to do some training. Overall, the cast is competent, with some nice touches. Matty Gurney is a physically large but often tender Frank, and Stephen Collins (Steve) has a certain comic flair. They are joined on the team by Nadeem Islam (Tony) and Adam Bassett (Phil) whose dream sequence creates something memorable. They are to be trained by Wayne Norman as Arthur, who moves nicely through the process of understanding how to work and communicate with his team, going from a stereotypical “if they don’t understand, speak louder” to what feels like a genuine empathy and ability to communicate. The final cast member is William Elliott playing Reg, trainer of the Cobblers Arms and the supposed bad guy of the piece, doubling as a commentator.
A sequence with no voice or captioning creates an interesting moment too – a glimpse perhaps into a world where you’re unable to understand what is being said, as the team converse using signing. Whether this is authentic BSL or not, some of the gestures used certainly add to the fun and leave little to the imagination. The crunch match at the end is also extremely well done, with long sequences of mime accompanied by a running match commentary, creating a genuine tension as the match draws to a climax.
The main challenge that is not really overcome is that the dialogue is effectively delivered at different speeds – as a hearing audience member it’s easy you find yourself reading the captioning ahead of the spoken dialogue, and the signing is slower still. The result is that much of Godber’s comedy – a lot of which is based around slick one-liners – is lost and the play feels slow at times, waiting for the signing to catch up. There is compensation in some of the business, where mime and signing are used to very good comic effect, but it isn’t always quite enough.
There is no doubt about the great value of creating a production with a largely deaf cast, aimed maybe at a largely deaf audience – but you have to wonder whether a slick comedy is the best vehicle for it.
Runs until 14 March 2018 | Image: Mike Kwasniak