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Tribes review at Crucible Theatre, Sheffield – ‘sensitively directed’

Louisa Connolly-Burnham and Oliver Johnstone in Tribes at Sheffield Crucible. Photo: Mark Douet Louisa Connolly-Burnham and Oliver Johnstone in Tribes at Sheffield Crucible. Photo: Mark Douet
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If you could rate smugness, the middle-class family gathering around the dinner table at the start of Nina Raine’s play, Tribes, would get top marks.

As this highly educated clan crunch literary concepts and argue about semiotics or whether feelings can be expressed through words, their egotism rapidly develops into a stifling cacophony of sneering tin-eared people used to speaking out loud but never really hearing each other. This is made even more toe-curling because one son, Billy, is excluded from the ritual by his profound deafness.

It’s taken seven years for Raine’s Royal Court success to finally receive its regional premiere. Thanks to Kate Hewitt’s semi in-the-round studio production this initial scene of genetically programmed group-think and Raine’s overall vision of family miscommunication contrasting with the parallel world of the deaf come across as strikingly fresh and alive.

Yet, surprisingly, these well-structured dynamics get caught up in too many plot strands during the second act, which lacks the gripping cohesion of the first. But the cast give convincing performances.

Ciaran Alexander Stewart is immensely moving as Billy teetering between family isolation, sensory loss and love for Emily Howlett’s Sylvia, the young woman going deaf whose introduction of sign language and deaf activism into his life becomes a liberating force. Oliver Johnstone is equally believable as the stammering brother Dan who can’t cope with his sibling’s signs of independence.

Indeed, one striking thing about this production is seeing an unarticulated love triangle emerge between the unhearing, the barely speaking and the signing, while the family’s inborn smugness fades away.

 

Verdict
Committed performances and sensitive direction make the regional premiere of Nina Raine’s play feel fresh and alive
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