Shared Experience's production of Speechless strongly defies categorisation, bouncing weirdly between real-life story, allegory and cultural comment, although the end result manages to tie all of these threads into an engaging story.
Excellently performed and staged, with numerous moments of striking stagecraft, there is little to criticise here in terms of production. However, it is in desperate need of a cohesive narrative – while the story forms a fascinating picture, there is little in the way of a through-line to draw the audience in emotionally.
Speechless is based on Majorie Wallace's book The Silent Twins: the true story of June and Jennifer Gibbons, twins who decided to stop speaking when very young, and whose self-imposed silence led them to lead a rather peculiar and haunting life.
The piece, presumably, draws more than simply inspiration from this story – it feels like a slice of life, moments from the twins' childhood instead of an analysis of said moments, and the result thus lacks thematic clarity: we get hints of race issues in the 80s, including the Brixton riots; the difficulty of being a twin; problems with the British education system, and too many more to name. It is difficult to settle on what this piece is trying to say or what story it is trying to tell, except for the story of these two strange twins. The result is elegaic, but confused.
That being said, where the script may confuse, the production is a lot more composed. The acting is strong across the board, with exceptional performances from Natasha Gordon and Demi Oyediran as the titular twins and strong support from the rest of the company, although accents do border a little on the stereotypical at times.
The staging is simple yet complex, with a strong reliance on a number of excellently sourced period props, and the lighting in particular deserves praise for helping set the scenes clearly without relying on a complex set. The sound design befits the piece's elegaic tone, but is a little muffled – the recorded lines in particular are not fully comprehensible.
This is an interesting new piece, and the production is haunting and beautiful, but the lack of consistent plot or a decision made on what the point of this story is leaves us with a beautiful set-piece over a cohesive piece of theatre – still well worth seeing, and a strong outing for Shared Experience, but not as emotionally involving as expected.