Deaf and hard of hearing prisoners find themselves in a lonely and frustrating world, cut off from their peers and denied regular contact with people of their own culture; so states a report by the Deaf Cultural Centre.
Two years ago, artistic director Paula Garfield, having met and talked to a deaf prisoner, began research that has resulted in this new Deafinitely Theatre production, written by Andrew Muir from a series of work-shopped ideas. But sadly this doesn't have the feel of a Littlewood Theatre Workshop piece, carefully constructed and honed, but rather constitutes a series of short vignettes which are not always clear in either their intention or style.
Tom, a young deaf man, has been sent to prison for brutally beating up a man (a fact we only learn late in the play), and from the moment he arrives it is clear that the guards are not prepared to acknowledge or deal with his deafness; this is their world where conformity is the keyword. Yet he experiences a very different relationship with another deaf prisoner, Alex (beautifully played by Wayne Jemmott), who has a knack of predicting winners for horse races – his prediction of a Grand National winner becomes central to the second half of the play.
The play's opening, with three speech therapists trying to get Tom to say his name, has a menacing quality reminiscent of Anne Jellicoe's Sport of my Mother; but the timescale of this is never clarified and their subsequent appearances behind the prison bars at odd intervals do little to develop the plot or atmosphere.
The double act of the two guards at times borders on vaudeville but it's unclear whether this is intentional for, as we find out later, Mike is a bitter twisted man, twice divorced, who has never achieved anything in life and hates any sign of individuality, destroying people by mockery. Whilst well acted the part is miscast as the character is clearly a lot older than that of the actor (the dialogue clearly states that he has been a warden for 26 years).
It's rare to see sign language incorporated into performance on stage and this company deserves to flourish. But there is a mismanagement of focus at present; for example, why not have Anna, the psychologist, speak and sign, which would relieve the strain on the audience from reading surtitles that are projected unhelpfully high up.