The Promise

Paula Garfield and Melissa Mostyn
Deafinitely Theatre
The Door at Birmingham Rep

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Erin Hutching (Jane), Anna Seymour (Rita) and James Boyle (Jake) Credit: Becky Bailey

The Promise is a new play written by the Artistic Director of Deafinitely Theatre, Paula Garfield, and the writer Melissa Mostyn. It tells the story of how a deaf couple and their deaf son respond to the mother, Rita’s, dementia.

Plays about dementia and the pressure it places on family relationships are not new, of course. Florian Zeller’s play, and subsequent film, The Father, dramatized the experience of having, and living with someone who suffers from, dementia and as cases continue to rise, it is an illness many of us are likely to encounter at some point in our lives.

What makes The Promise unique is the insight it gives into how the isolation caused by dementia is compounded by the exclusion which British Sign Language (BSL) users already face.

The set consists of a white wall with doors in it, four of which the cast can enter through and others which conceal a fridge and a wardrobe. As we enter The Door, The Birmingham Rep’s 130-seater, black box studio space, falling cherry blossom is being projected onto the set while haze wafts across the stage and Erik Satie’s "Gymnopedie No. 1" plays quietly on the PA. Rita, played by Anna Seymour, enters and delivers a class on Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" in BSL accompanied by a gentle wash of ambient synthesiser music.

From then on, the play is presented in BSL, spoken English and surtitles. Rita’s estranged son, Jake (James Boyle), enters and we learn that he has returned to England from Amsterdam for his father’s funeral. The action then moves backwards and forwards in time as we find out why Jake lost contact with his family and we witness Rita’s declining health.

It turns out that Jake came out to his parents as gay at the height of the AIDS scare. The limited understanding Jake’s father, Mike (Louis Neethling), had of homosexuality was based largely on the 1986, "Don’t Die Of Ignorance", tombstone advert. He refused to attend Jake’s wedding to his partner, Paul, in Amsterdam and he tore up Rita’s airline ticket to stop her going on her own. Meanwhile, Mike lost his job around the time of the miners’ strike and Rita, a committed educator and deaf rights campaigner, told him to join the union. The connection between workers’ rights, gay rights and disability rights is explicit without being laboured.

As Rita's dementia got worse, Mike became her full-time carer. A family friend, Jane (Erin Hutching), has kept an eye on Rita since Mike’s death, but now Jake has to step up and navigate the care system on his mother’s behalf. Jake has to get Lasting Power of Attorney to even start the process, and Rita is then put through a series of needs assessments, all of which are designed primarily for hearing people.

Having gone through it myself as a hearing person, I know how difficult it is to provide an elderly parent with the care to which they are entitled. But the problems are compounded when your own hearing impairment means it’s hard to get help, the people who are there to help don’t understand your deaf parent’s needs and the available care services don’t cater for them anyway. It turns out there is one care home in the entire country which caters for deaf, BSL signing residents. It’s called Easthill, it’s on the Isle Of Wight and it accommodates fifteen residents. It is, of course, hopelessly over-subscribed and Rita ends up in a normal care home. Her carers want to help, but they don’t sign so they can’t communicate with her.

This is a deeply political and quietly angry play which documents problems with which a deaf audience will be all too familiar but which a hearing audience might not. The play makes it clear that Mike's homophobia comes from the same place as disability discrimination: ignorance. Elsewhere, the play references the Warnock Report into inclusive education for young people with disabilities. This is not a plea for special treatment, just understanding and access to the same services that everyone else takes for granted.

The cast of four is uniformly good, the staging is simple and effective and the sound design by Marie Zschlommler and video design by Ben Glover are unobtrusive and atmospheric. The play ends with clips of residents at Easthill to show how the right care provision can transform people's lives. As health, education and social care services are cut, The Promise is a timely reminder that behind the statistics lie real people who have to live with the consequences.

Reviewer: Andrew Cowie

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