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Review Round-up: Raine Play Woos Critical Tribes

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Following the success of her debut play Rabbit, Nina Raine's Tribes opened at the Royal Court on 20 October 2010 (previews from 14 October) where it continues until 13 November.

With a cast which includes Jacob Casselden, Kika Markham, Stanley Townsend, Michelle Terry, Harry Treadaway and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the piece tells the story of a deaf boy in an unconventional family. The play is directed by Roger Michell whose recent work includes Rope at the Almeida.

Did Raine's new work, four years on from her first, satisfy the critics?

Michael Coveney

"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 ... Tribes certainly sits well with artistic director Dominic Cooke's avowed policy of foregrounding middle-class issues and raising taboo subjects ... 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 ... 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 ... There are other loose ends, but the overwhelming impact of a highly original and cunningly written new play, superb acting all round ... all ensure another stimulating evening in Sloane Square."

Michael Billington
The Guardian

"Nina Raine's promising first play, Rabbit, dealt with sexual politics. Now she steps up a gear with a more challenging play about isolation, deafness, families and the confusion of articulacy with emotional literacy. Even if it veers towards a dubiously upbeat ending, it is a lively, provocative piece that offers precious insights ... The crisis comes when Billy falls for Sylvia, who is going deaf. ... Raine is good on the collision of two worlds and has many sharp, unsentimental things to say about tribes ... Admittedly... she saddles Billy's siblings with too many problems ... But the play's defects are overcome by its questing curiosity ... Jacob Casselden as the independence-seeking Billy, Michelle Terry as the troubled Sylvia torn between the hearing and the deaf and Stanley Townsend as the bumptiously offensive father are especially good. The last poses the play's central question when he aggressively asks Sylvia, a propos sign-language: 'How can you feel a feeling unless you have the word for it?' Raine's play provides an answer by implying that excessive verbalisation can become a disability."

Fiona Mountford
The Evening Standard

"I confess that I wasn’t a fan of Rabbit, struggling as I did with its over-arch dialogue. The lengthy gap between plays one and two has seen Raine’s writing mature wonderfully, as the exchanges here are razor-sharp as well as utterly credible ... Initially it seems as though we’re sitting around the dining table of a classic over-achieving, cultured modern family ... The picture is clouded by deaf youngest son Billy (Jacob Casselden). The only time everyone stops interrupting each other is to listen with condescension when he speaks ... Raine has useful points to make about talking not being the same as actually saying anything ... Does the label “deaf” signal a disability “ghetto” or a place of free expression? Roger Michell directs with judicious periods of silence, and there are fine performances ... Raine, thankfully, isn’t going to make us wait so long: there’s more from her at Hampstead in January."

Charles Spencer
The Daily Telegraph

"At once funny and piercingly painful ... To restrict it to a ghetto of “disability theatre” would be gravely to undervalue its scope ... Raine... writes with a marvellous mixture of wit and empathy. And in Roger Michell’s beautifully judged, superbly acted production, you come to know all the characters in depth. There are also mesmerising passages involving signing, with the words, so eloquently expressed by gesture, also appearing as surtitles ... Jacob Casselden, who is deaf himself, is the still centre of the family storm as Billy, and the sense of wonder with which he falls in love and discovers a new confidence is as moving as anything I have seen in the theatre this year. Michelle Terry is equally beguiling as his girlfriend ... There is outstanding support from Stanley Townsend as the booming, disputatious father, Kika Markham as the loving, grief-stricken mother and Harry Treadaway and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Billy’s hearing siblings, both afflicted by problems and insecurities of their own."

Quentin Letts
The Daily Mail

"Playwright Nina Raine needs to wash her mouth out. She has written an unusual, in places touching play about family love and the exclusion of deaf people. It could be a commercial hit, worthy of transfer to the West End, maybe even the small screen, but for one problem: her adolescent, demeaning, depressing, self-defeating glee in foul language ... Miss Raine uses bad language so ­promiscuously that the words lose their potency and simply become litter ... You expect better from a daughter of intellectual privilege (her father Craig Raine is a poet who taught English at Oxford) ... Miss Raine gives this controversy a skilful chewing-over and is well served by a cast which includes Stanley Townsend as the father and Kika Markham as the mother ... Some moments are confusing. Billy’s behaviour is not always explained and some business about his brother hearing strange voices doesn’t make much sense. But there is a lovely finale which will have you snuffling. If they could only reduce the ­profanities by 95%, I would recommend this show in a shot."

Paul Taylor
The Independent

"Tribes, a fiercely intelligent, caustically funny and emotionally wrenching piece about communication, belonging, and identity ... There's both a witty and a heartbreaking candour in Terry's sensitive portrayal as we see when Sylvia flutteringly demonstrates the expressive beauty of sign language by translating a passage from Paradise Lost ... Tribes unfolds in a dramatically incisive mix of speech and sign language, the latter projected in words on an upstage gauze. Most piercing, though, are those moments of surtitled silence, as in the gestures of love between Billy and his mentally troubled brother that bring home the eloquence of what is left unsaid. These give the lie to the father's smugly aggressive scepticism ("how can you feel a feeling unless you have a word for it?") and tacitly establish that it's hyper-articulacy that can sometimes be the real handicap."

Dominic Maxwell
The Times

"Nina Raine is a playwright to watch. Tribes is a play about belonging, about deafness, about finding your voice. And, for its polyphonic first half at least, it’s about as sharp, witty and stimulating as a domestic drama can be. Roger Michell’s deft production gives us a well-off, liberal family to believe in ... Raine has found everyone’s voice here ... As Sylvia, Michelle Terry gets across the nerves, politeness, defiance and confusion of a woman suddenly caught in a personal and political pincer movement ... The plottier second half can’t quite live up to that. It’s still good writing — but it feels like good writing, with some of the contrivances that one allows for in plays, where the first half felt uncannily like life, concentrated but real . A subplot about Billy’s new career as a lip-reader is overkill. Raine’s empathy with her characters remains vivid throughout, though. She suggests what it’s like to go deaf, the hang-ups and the hierarchies. But also how the hearing can disable themselves with the sound of their own voices. A fresh, funny and affecting evening."


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