It is 30 years since Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God brought deafness to the stage in an unusual love story; now Nina Raine writes a much edgier, and more blistering, domestic drama in which a deaf younger son, Billy, recently graduated, reassesses his relationship to his own family after meeting someone who listens to him more than they do.
Tribes certainly sits well with artistic director Dominic Cooke’s avowed policy of foregrounding middle-class issues and raising taboo subjects. Billy’s family is a nightmare collection of egotists, similar to Noel Coward’s self-absorbed Bliss family in Hay Fever.
Christopher (Stanley Townsend) is a loudmouth academic, full of racist jokes and put-downs, while his wife Beth (Kika Markham) is trying to finish a novel. This is a family who shout without listening, speak without feeling; Roger Michell’s production has an ironically high decibel level, for the first half-hour at least.
Billy’s siblings Daniel (Harry Treadaway) and Ruth (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) are, respectively, engaged on a thesis about the inadequacy of language and the transcendental power of music; Ruth is an aspiring opera singer.
Having subtly established the parameters of a debate about language – you never feel she’s being gratuitously diagrammatic – Raine introduces Billy’s friend, the catalytic Sylvia, brilliantly played by Michelle Terry, who is going slowly deaf and half speaking in sign language: she also recalls how to play Debussy on the piano.
The play is cleverly designed by Mark Thompson and beautifully lit by Rick Fisher, and settles around the developing relationship between Billy (touchingly played by deaf actor Jacob Casselden) and Sylvia, and the broken communication cord results in a vociferous showdown, complicated by an enigmatically puzzling court case involving Billy.
There are other loose ends, but the overwhelming impact of a highly original and cunningly written new play, superb acting all round, with Puccini’s “Humming Chorus” (no words) sealing some kind of reunion, all ensure another stimulating evening in Sloane Square.