National Theatre (Dorfman Theatre)
This play was the winning entry out of over 400 submitted for the National Theatre’s 2021/22 New Views completion for writers 14 to 19 years old.*
The short-listed plays which got rehearsed readings dealt with topics that included racism, transphobia, chronic illness, schizophrenia, attempted suicide, war, rape and cyber bullying. These are, as Nina Steiger NT Head of Play Development remarked, “young writers getting to grips not only with those issues they care about most passionately but also the tools they need to create maximum impact and feeling.”
In Barrier(s), 17-year-old Eloise Pennycott has written a two-hander consisting of a succession of short scenes that explore the lesbian relationship between two young women, one of them profoundly deaf. It is built from a succession of key moments from the moment when deaf Katie (Erin Siobhan Hutching) meets Lana at a party.
At first, Alana has almost no knowledge of signing but starts to learn it. Soon Katie moves in with Lana, though things don’t always go smoothly. Their signing in public sometimes seems to produce hostility. As Katie says, deaf people are perfectly normal, but that’s not how all hearing people see them.
Hostility grows and signing is prohibited, even in school Katie is not allowed to use signing with her deaf pupils, they are told to use voice. Barrier(s) becomes not just a look at a relationship that has to learn ways to communicate and then survive in a society that sets barriers but points to the past injustices of dominant oralism.
In a section directly to the audience, Katie charts the progress in the UK in recent years with Sign now officially recognised.
The whole 45 minutes is performed in a mixture of speech and Sign with signing predominant but where conversation needs explanation for non-signers there are subtitles, though there are humorous passages that only signers are privy to (and that deaf signers who made up a large part of the audience were clearly enjoying).
Directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson with Paula Garfield of Deafinitely Theatre as Associate Director, scenes move very swiftly, new props handed from offstage speeding things up. Ms Pennycott doesn’t waste words and makes her points cleanly. In just 45 minutes, she tells a complete story and puts forward a strong case effectively. Signers aren’t something strange to stare at. You should learn it. Fluttering your hands in applause is easy but that isn’t enough. Time to make the real effort.
*Every year, New Views, the National Theatre’s pioneering playwriting programme for 14- to 19-year-olds, gives hundreds of students from across the UK the opportunity to learn about playwriting from some of the UK’s finest writers and to write their own 30-minute plays. A selection of these plays are then presented as rehearsed readings at the NT, with one young playwright being given the chance to see their work brought to life on a National Theatre stage by a professional cast and crew. Details on the National Theatre web site.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton