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Review: Horrible Histories: Dreadful Deaf (Bristol Old Vic)

Deafinitely Theatre team up with the Horrible Histories crew to present a playful history of deaf people

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Fifi Garfield and Nadeem Islam in Horrible Histories: Dreadful Deaf
© Becky Bailey

It should come as a surprise to no one that the latest Horrible Histories, Dreadful Deaf is another triumph; after all, Birmingham Stage Company has cornered the market in the stage versions of a franchise that mixes facts with a heavy dose of flagellants and flatulence. Here, teaming up with Deafinitely Theatre, they have produced an hour's trawl through the history of Deafness, pairing fascinating tales with giggles aplenty.

Did you know that in 1000 BC Egyptian Hebrew law denied deaf people rights to be married or have children? Or that their attempted cure involved goat's urine being poured directly into the ear? How about that Greek philosopher and all-around modern thinker Aristotle, who claimed that ‘"Deaf are born incapable of reason". On and on it goes, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, campaigned for banning sign language and promoting oralism but signed his dying words. Horrible Histories has always enjoyed telling the bleak, but what this shows is that those born deaf have faced centuries of being oppressed.

Thankfully as we begin to shift into more modern history, heroes do begin to emerge. There is Thomas Brainwood, founder of the first school for deaf children in Edinburgh in the 1760s or Helen Watts, a suffragette who campaigned so fervently from a gaol cell in Reading that she was released early for fear of fatality. In a nice touch in Paul Burgess' compact set, modern heroes from the deaf community are projected before and after, a mix of sportsmen and women, doctors and teachers. It's a sign of how far things have come and also a telling indictment of how much further things still need to shift. After all, there were very few instantly recognisable faces on the list, a sign that barriers are still up for this community to rise to the very top.

Deafinitely's artistic director Paula Garfield's production is spritely and charmingly lo-fi. At times, as actors pull rag-tag costumes from a chest, it has the feel of children playing dress up. As the run develops, the whole thing will inevitably become sharper, there are still lulls as actors change from Renaissance thinkers into Highway robbers etc, but the three performers Fifi Garfield, Naomi Gray and Nadeem Islam (two deaf and one a BSL/English Interpreter) bring charm and a great deal of versatility to their roles. In a world where big theatrical productions cost as much as a feature film, it is great to see the effective simplicity of the storytelling – look out for how they stage a couple creating a family – and they are aided by some catchy compositions from composer Christopher Bartholomew.

It's also worth a shout out to Bristol Old Vic, who, in this half term week are also showing In The Willows in the main house, a show which embeds signing throughout. It's a demonstration of a theatre taking direct action to make their spaces more inclusive. Over the course of 24 hours and two visits, its foyer space was full of people excitedly signing and with beaming smiles on their faces. As Ray Kinsella said ‘'build it and they will come''. Hopefully the beginning of much more to come.