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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Royal Court


If one of the yardsticks of a good play is that you leave the theatre having learned something fresh about the human condition, then Nina Raine’s Tribes is a very good play indeed.
Her subject is communication and/or the lack of it. Like the National's current revival of Ena Lamont Stewart's Men Should Weep, it’s also a play about family dynamics, sibling rivalry and, most crucially, deafness. Another yardstick of a good play is that it should, at its heart, have a strong premise, and Tribes’ premise is characterised by the maxim that there’s none so deaf as those who refuse to hear.
When we first meet them, the family in question might momentarily be mistaken for the kind of self-indulgent, hermetically sealed brood featured in such 1930s screwball comedies as George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It with You. Except that instead of possessing a set of endearingly comic foibles, their issues are far more serious.
Dad (Stanely Townsend) is a bombastic, highly opinionated literary critic incapable of holding a conversation without bulldozing his way through it, while his wife Beth (Kika Markham), a struggling novelist, is a caring, affectionate mum who’s out of her depth when it comes to coping with the more dysfunctional elements in her family.
Their oldest son Daniel (Harry Treadaway) is a disturbed academic given to aural hallucinations and, when stressed, stammering. Ruth (Phoebe Waller Bridge), his sister, mistakenly believes she has what it takes to be an opera-singer, while the youngest, Billy (Jacob Casselden), a lip-reader for the Crown Prosecution Service, is profoundly deaf.
All have problems communicating with one another, especially Billy, who, because of his affliction, has been marginalised by the family. His rampantly egotistical father barely gives him the time of day, while Daniel and Ruth, who genuinely love him, feed off his deafness and isolation to counteract their own inadequacies.
Everything changes, however, when Billy meets and falls in love with Sylvia (Michelle Terry, excellent), a self-assured young woman in her 20s who is going deaf. Sylvia isn’t as efficient a lip-reader as Billy, while Billy does not, initially, possess Sylvia’s skills at signing.
As Sylvia’s encroaching deafness becomes worse and her life, as a result, undergoes a seismic change, Billy masters the art of communication by signing and, in the play’s most moving scene, conveys his frustration at his family’s refusal to listen to him by abandoning speech in favour of signing.
As Billy “finds his voice,” Sylvia loses hers. She cannot face a deaf, ghetto-ised existence with him and ends the relationship. Billy returns home and is embraced by a diminished Daniel, who realises the family dynamic has irrevocably changed. Things will never quite be the same again.
All the performances are splendid, with Jacob Casselden, who himself is deaf, especially moving as he finally transforms himself from family mascot to a person in his own right.

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