Surprisingly, seven years after its acclaimed Royal Court opening and five years after sweeping the new play awards in the States, Nina Raine's Tribes is only now receiving its regional premiere. Belated it may be, but there's no disputing the quality of Kate Hewitt's inventive, committed and supremely confident production.
Tribes is one of those plays best described as "challenging". Raine asks questions about our approach to deafness, seems to answer them, then questions the answers. However, the title tells us that she also debates, sometimes furiously, the idea of family, of belonging and identifying. And, somewhere along the way, she delivers a blistering satire on self-opinionated middle-class intellectuals.
In the second half there are almost too many drastic changes of gear and the happy ending doesn't convince, but the movement from comic academic backbiting – expletives flying around as freely as philosophical theories – to the bleakness of a world where identity is fragile is powerfully handled.
The opening is like Hay Fever on speed, with a supremely selfish family pursuing their own creative theories, triumphs and problems, mocking each other mercilessly (and very amusingly), shouting each other down in between getting another bottle of wine. Christopher, the father, produces works of academic theory; Beth, the mother, has taken to writing novels about dysfunctional families; Dan, the son, is attempting to write an academic thesis, though Christopher thinks he's more suited to stand-up; Ruth, the daughter, wants to be an opera singer.
But there is another son, Billy, deaf from birth. Christopher believes in treating him as fully able, refusing to allow him to learn sign language, convinced that he is a part of the "tribe" and enjoys joining in its rituals. Hewitt's production nails this from the start. As the audience enters, Billy is seated at the table, eating his meal, sipping his wine – alone. As the play starts, the others appear with their plates, glasses, jokes and insults. Billy remains blank, unable to join in.
Then Billy gets a girl friend, Sylvia, born with hearing to deaf parents, but now losing her own hearing. Sylvia introduces Billy to signing and this proves a path to independence: he tells his parents that the first time they ever listened to him was when he stopped speaking.
It's difficult to fault the acting, though I remain puzzled at the variety of accents. Simon Rouse roisters and rants through Christopher, all ego and certainty, with Lindy Whiteford's rather more sympathetic Beth a worthy adversary. Louisa Connolly-Burnham, as the emotionally fragile Ruth, makes a terrific professional stage debut. Oliver Johnstone copes superbly with Dan's journey from bumptious brilliance, via drugs and hallucinations, to inarticulate desperation. Ciaran Alexander Stewart, remarkably still training, and Emily Howlett carry the emotional core of the play as Billy and Sylvia with subtlety, commitment and the rare ability to suggest goodness.
Amanda Stoodley's handsome designs clothe the Studio in wood, exploiting different levels elegantly. George Dennis' sound design periodically creates the world of the deaf and the use of surtitles is helpful and stylish.
Tribes runs at Sheffield Crucible Studio until 22 July.