REVIEW: Deaf actors shine in Tribes

Emily Howlett and  Ciaran Alexander Stewart,  in Tribes, Crucible Studio. Photo by Mark Douet.
Emily Howlett and Ciaran Alexander Stewart, in Tribes, Crucible Studio. Photo by Mark Douet.

The regional premiere of a play by Nina Raine has opened at the Studio Theatre in Sheffield. Tribes is superbly directed by Kate Hewitt.

An elegant set encompasses the auditorium as well as the stage – drawing the audience in and making them feel very close to the action. 
The play is about an educated, middle-class family with a domineering father who prides himself on being honest with his three grown-up children – none of whom have managed to establish an independent life.

The atmosphere is one of sibling rivalry and simmering resentments.

One of the three, Billy, has been born deaf. His parents are determined not to treat him any differently from the others. When Billy meets Sylvia, whose parents are deaf, and who is slowly going deaf herself, the family experience an unexpected crisis. The father is threatened by the idea of Billy becoming part of a deaf community. Billy’s brother, Dan, whose behaviour is modelled on that of his emotionally abusive father, feels protective towards Billy, but finds that a childhood stammer is returning. Both Beth, the mother, and Ruth, the young men’s sister, have ambitions of their own – but are constantly put down by the men.

The dialogue is darkly comic. The characters are completely believable. But what gives the whole play an extra dimension is that Billy and Sylvia are played by actors who are themselves deaf, reliant in the main on a mixture of lip reading and signing. This rooting of the performance in reality underpins the pivotal scene where Billy confronts the family with an ultimatum – since they have ignored him for so long, he won’t speak to them, using words, until they learn to use the sign language that Sylvia has taught him. His anger is electrifying. The scene tilts the play towards an examination of the changing relationship between Billy and Sylvia, and the escalating crisis in Dan’s mental health.

There are many layers in the treatment of deafness in the play – both actual and metaphorical; and the title encourages us to think about issues surrounding group identity.
All the hearing actors –Simon Rouse, Lindy Whiteford, Oliver Johnstone, and Louisa Connolly-Burnham – are memorable; but the evening belongs to the ones who are deaf: Ciaran Alexander Stewart and Emily Howlett. 
There are a number of signed, captioned and audio described performances over the course of the run. Tribes is on until July 22.