Role Shift

Glasgow-based Birds of Paradise Theatre Company continues to lead the way in producing theatre that’s fully accessible to people with physical and/or sensory impairments, both as creators and audiences. From delightfully rude comedy Wendy Hoose to the explosive choreography of Crazy Jane, and the assumptions-challenging Purposeless Movements, the company has shown how British Sign Language interpretation, surtitles and audio-description are theatrical tools in their own right, not just legal requirements.

The symbolism may be obvious – not least with Jonathan Scott’s roulette wheel-inspired set – but there’s little doubt that, with Role Shift, director Garry Robson has created a sparkling diamond of a show that’s as bold and brash as it needs to be

Ally (Robert Softley Gale, in a welcome return to the stage as a performer) and Bernie (Louise McCarthy) are on a luxury cruise liner, two apparent lost souls losing themselves within the thrills of the roulette wheel and drunken flirting with numerous sexy Mediterranean men. Initially on the side-lines of the stage, stuck on a box to raise her height, is Role Shift’s designated BSL signer Carrie (Natalie MacDonald). The first “role shift” in Lesley Hart’s honed script is seemingly small, yet fundamentally huge; Carrie – who, while interpreting, effectively becomes “everyone and no-one” on stage, translating without any inclusion of “he/she said” – finds herself central stage, thinking for herself and looking to influence the plot.

It soon becomes clear, however, that she’s completely out of her depth, as Ally and Bernie start behaving in ways neither they nor she expects – with the two cruise passengers ending up having rampant sex, and then noticing not just Carrie but also the audience! Horrified by the idea that they’ve unknowingly become the on-board entertainment, Ally and Bernie undergo a final role-shift – they switch bodies. There’s no particular surprise that this is initially done for laughs, but the Birds of Paradise team are never fearful of following the inherent logic of any situation; both Ally and Bernie then revel in the experience of feeling their own bodies from the perspective of the other’s.

Underneath the laughs and ribaldry, though, are more serious concerns; Bernie’s fears about her future are perfectly contrasted with Ally’s life-affirming sense of identity as a man with cerebral palsy – for, like Softly Gale, Ally has a speech impediment and uses a wheelchair. In its final few minutes Role Shift proves itself to be an unashamed call to arms on making the best of our lives, whatever numbers the roulette wheel of life throws up. The symbolism may be obvious – not least with Jonathan Scott’s roulette wheel-inspired set – but there’s little doubt that, with Role Shift, director Garry Robson has created a sparkling diamond of a show that’s as bold and brash as it needs to be, without forgetting to treat the issues of gender, sexuality and disability with both the seriousness and frivolity that they deserve. 

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The Blurb

Co-production with Birds of Paradise Theatre Company

Inspired by the principle of “role shift” in British Sign Language, Lesley Hart’s new play is a body-swapping, mind bending comedy about the struggle to live with and without other people – and what it really means to be ‘me’.

Carrie is dutifully doing her job as a sign language interpreter but when she gets drawn into the action she disrupts the world of the play from a boy meets girl love story into something very different, magical and strange.

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