Seen at Byre Theatre, St Andrews
Touring until October 22
Glasgow-based Solar Bear theatre company seeks to make work for and about neglected and marginalised communities in our society. Its latest play, Tribes by Nina Raine, is an intriguing drama about Billy, a young man who was born deaf into an argumentative, intellectual, middle-class, English family.
In the somewhat overcooked first half, we meet Billy’s father, a retired linguistics lecturer, an egregiously sarcastic, opinionated caricature. Billy’s brother Daniel, who is working on a thesis on linguistics, is similarly two-dimensional and disagreeable.
We can see all too clearly the irony, that this family, who are so obsessed with language and verbal communication, have chosen not to learn British Sign Language (BSL). Consequently, in their delusion that Billy has adapted successfully and happily to life without BSL, they have left him in a condition of extremely restricted self-expression.
By the interval director Gerry Ramage’s production feels like a cross between a cerebral, if somewhat histrionic, soap opera and a well-intentioned lecture. Matters improve in the second act, however, when Billy plunges into the capital “D” Deaf community of his new girlfriend, who is going deaf, and gets a job lip-reading for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)
The piece explores a massive ethical issue in Billy’s work for the CPS and the complexities of the politics of Deaf community organisations. However, the real drama comes in Billy’s confronting his family, including his sensitive yet uncomprehending mother, about their refusal to learn BSL.
Although things pick up in the second half, even a brief outline of the play indicates that Raine has attempted to squeeze too many issues into one drama. Well acted, combining speech and BSL effectively, and with an intelligent use of subtitles and projected images, it is an often cleverly written, occasionally moving, but frustratingly uneven piece of theatre.
For tour dates, visit: solarbear.org.uk
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 4, 2015
© Mark Brown