Melissa Mostyn caught Deafinitely Theatre's preview of Double Sentence, and their Deafinitely Creative showcase of eight short pieces, at Ovalhouse Theatre, London on 9th and 10th January 2009
Deafinitely Theatre's last production, 'Lipstick and Lollipops' didn't impress, due to a storyline rather too reminiscent of EastEnders to feel truly original, and a habit for characters to appear at cross-purposes, confounding all sense of time and space. Given the company's output, however – past dramas have explored cochlear implant politics, Nazi deaf genocide, and dysfunctional family life - it could be safely assumed that future plays would not repeat such mistakes.
Indeed, both 'Deafinitely Creative' - a showcase of eight pieces by deaf writers – and 'Double Sentence', Deafinitely Theatre's new work-in-progress, both directed by Paula Garfield and staged at Oval House Theatre over two nights, showed evidence of both a return to form and new potential for ingenuity.
To detail every one of the 'Deafinitely Creative' shorts-in-progress - developed over four intensive monthly sessions in London following a week-long residential writing course in Shropshire – would be impossible. Nevertheless, three pieces stood out for very different reasons, and should be noted here with an eye on the future.
The charm with which Mary-Jayne Russell de Clifford's 'Buttercup' depicted the story of an orphaned nun trying to avoid the laundry man's attentions just avoided being cloying, thanks to evocative descriptions of the buttercups symbolising the consummated happiness within her reach.
Norma McGilp's 'Hold the Line' was a spirited comedy-drama about a deaf woman and her sign language interpreter wrestling for control of the telephone. The fieriest battle of wills then ensued, with cracking dialogue in two languages that had the audience laughing uproariously before shocking them into a collective eleventh-hour gasp.
Finally, in Aliya Gulamani's 'Energy', four people generated a makeshift industrial climate by repeating a basic action while standing at right angles to each other: taking payment, pushing a pram, applying lipstick, reading a newspaper. Within this setting, relationships between the four emerged as they crossed paths, in the process clarifying the motive for their actions.
More anticipation was reserved for 'Double Sentence'. Taking place on a black stage - unadorned save for a white-tape floor grid – the story concerns Tom Fry (Matthew Gurney), a Deaf BSL user adapting to prison life. After attempts to co-operate with staff and inmates fail to overcome the proverbial linguistic barrier, he is visited by Anna (Emma Case), a clinical psychologist with sign language skills, who could provide just the lifeline he needs. Sadly, the respite is short-lived: another psychologist, Mary (the estimable Caroline Parker), brought in for a second opinion, lacks Anna's communication skills and misinterprets Tom's frustrated requests as an act of insanity. As a result, solitary confinement is recommended.
So far, so expected. This was classic issues-driven theatre that drew from four months' research involving Deaf prisoners and ex-offenders for the first time and Deafinitely Theatre's own political inclinations. However, its lucidity was a surprise. A 20-minute preview following just two weeks of script development this might have been, but 'Double Sentence' indicated an impeccably tight, absorbing story that brought home the appallingly bleak prognosis that many Deaf BSL prisoners face, commanding strong performances all-round.
One hopes, however, that Deafinitely Theatre do not plan to tell the story straight, necessarily. Advantages in highlighting a little-known issue beyond offenders' and ex-offenders' circles aside, the company's strong Deaf fanbase would benefit from a slightly more experimental narrative. They are, after all, already well-versed in discriminatory experiences, and don't need to be told the same story, over and over again, in different contexts.
That said, it's good to see Deafinitely Theatre collaborating with Andrew Muir - a mainstream actor, director and playwright responsible for the award-winning 'Green Grass, Push' (selected as Time Out Critic's Choice) and 'The Owls Nest' – and one has hopes for the possible developments such a partnership could bring.
Depending on funding, Deafinitely Theatre hopes to go on national tour with 'Double Sentence' in late 2009. Visit www.deafinitelytheatre.co.uk for news of future developments.