The family at the heart of Nina Raine’s Tribes is liable, at least initially, to make you yearn for the exit. Parents Christopher and Beth are both writers; he a pedantic academic never short of a criticism, she working on her “marriage-breakdown detective novel.” Son Daniel is on his 12th attempt at a dissertation while daughter Ruth sings arias in bars in an attempt to launch a musical career. You can’t help but think they deserve each other, though: loud, opinionated and constantly arguing, they duel with words as their weapon of choice.

It’s understandable why Solar Bear, a Glasgow-based company which aims to make theatre accessible for deaf people as both audience and performer, has resurrected this play. Nominated for both Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for best play, Tribes is very much about deaf people’s position within a hearing society.

Except… when we first see them around the dinner table that doubles as their battlefield, there’s one obvious still-point: youngest son and brother Billy, newly returned from university and never quite a part of all the constant argy-bargy as he finishes his meal. There’s a simple reason for this; he’s deaf.

Not that the rest of Billy’s family appear to recognise how potentially lonely this leaves him; deaf from birth, Billy was deliberately raised to use hearing aids and taught to lipread. The consequences of which will threaten to split the family permanently once Billy begins to assert his BSL-using “Deaf” identity with new girlfriend Sylvia – who, while born hearing to Deaf parents, now has a foot in both camps as she slowly but surely loses her own sense of hearing.

It’s understandable why Solar Bear, a Glasgow-based company which aims to make theatre accessible for deaf people as both audience and performer, has resurrected this play. Nominated for both Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for best play, Tribes is very much about deaf people’s position within a hearing society. Indeed, Raine touches on numerous interconnected issues, from the limitations of a spatial, visual language to the seemingly inevitable hierarchies that have grown up within the deaf “community” itself.

This production certainly has a strong cast: Richard Addison is consummately pig-headed as Christopher, while Janette Foggo offers a real sense of maternal instinct as Beth. Ben Clifford and Kirsty McDuff give us a believable pair of siblings, with Clifford effectively underplaying Ben’s drugs-suppressed schizophrenia. Stephanie McGregor, meantime, navigates the difficult role of Sylvia, who finds herself both outsider and mediator within this dysfunctional family. The focus of the production, however, remains on up and coming actor Alex Nowak as Billy; this young deaf actor is definitely one to keep an eye on.

The play isn’t without problems; Raine’s script does saddle Billy’s siblings with more problems than is entirely believable, while the ending is undoubtedly more positive than seems sensible. This particular production, too, also opts for an overtly-realistic set for the family’s living room, which requires a pace-sapping restructuring between scenes, not least at the point when the action momentarily shifts to another location.

Tribes nevertheless remains an example of perceptive, thought-provoking and instructive theatre worthy of all our attention.   

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn


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The Blurb

Tribes is a poignant yet biting drama about love, family and finding one’s voice. Billy is a young man born deaf and raised in a loud, opinionated family and yet his parents and siblings never bothered to learn sign language, meaning Billy had to adapt to a hearing world. When he meets Sylvia, a young woman from a deaf family who introduces him to Deaf culture, Billy suddenly feels confidence and a sense of belonging to a “tribe” he’s never known before.

Nina Raine’s second play is a fascinating dissection of belonging, family and the limitations of communication. She won the Evening Standard Award and Critics Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright for her debut play Rabbit in 2006. She is also a director.

This production is presented by Solar Bear Theatre Company who work to make theatre accessible for everyone, and directed by Artistic Director, Gerry Ramage. Accessible to all audiences. Every performance will have BSL interpretation.

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