Paul Benton Reviews Tribes by Nina Raine at Putney Arts Theatre

Controversial play explores communication through the experience of a deaf man

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The play Tribes charts the experience of a deaf man brought up in a hearing family and, in the process, explores the nature of communication.

Billy born deaf, taught to speak and lip read from an early age, is clearly a partial observer in family interactions, this sidelining effect is not brought about through intention but by a lack of understanding and consideration.

The family thrive on fractious discussion, at times uncomfortable to watch, but this only goes to serve the writer’s intention to illustrate the inability of the family to communicate either coherently or effectively with one another.

The family’s incessant and sometimes caustic expression of their views creates an interesting juxtaposition, on one hand these discussions have shaped and damaged inter-family relations, while on the other hand they appear to have left Billy relatively undamaged.

Through his new girlfriend Sylvia, who is losing her hearing, Billy learns Sign Language and that there is a whole new world of expression now available to him. His choice to embrace Sign Language creates a perceived barrier within the family, which in turn causes conflict at home, as the family are now the ones who feel sidelined.

The Director, Grace Johnstone, successfully delivers a remarkable play that is a welcome insight into a sense many of us take for granted and the importance of Sign Language to many in the deaf community and their identity and culture.

The play’s challenging message is effectively delivered by a fine cast who tackle the roles with a mixture of sensitivity, dexterity and in Billy’s case a high degree of expertise.

The simple set, effective lighting and projections all designed by the Director, Grace, contribute most effectively in the telling of the story.

I am aware that this play has been controversial within the deaf community and the issues raised are all the more pertinent in our age where perceived barriers of language and communication are issues that have fostered division.

Adult themes and language
The plays run: 21st - 25th January 2019 7.45pm
Putney Arts Theatre
Box office: 020 8788 6943
Tickets: £14/£10

Paul Benton

Photograph: Benjamin Copping

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January 22, 2020