Billy sits alone at the family table, quietly eating his dinner while his family gradually surround him – talking over each other, throwing insults at each other (“this pasta is like being fucked in the face by a crab” is one of the more colourful lines). The constant quickfire dialogue becomes wearisome and you end up in the strange position of being envious of Billy. For Billy is deaf, and can’t hear any of the cacophony going on around him.
Nina Raine’s second play, receiving its regional premiere in Sheffield seven years after its Royal Court debut, starts at an immediate disadvantage in plunging the audience straight into this familial dinner. And, oh boy, what an insufferable family they are. Christopher, the father, is an arrogant, boorish bully, constantly flinging expletive-laden insults at his wife and children; youngest daughter Ruth is whiny, needy and self-obsessed; and Billy’s brother Dan is smarmy and egotistical. After about 15 minutes, you may find yourself seriously reconsidering your decision to spend over two hours with these people.
Thankfully, after a while, Raine’s script gradually peels away the external skin from her characters. Communication problems lie at the heart of this family – as well as Billy’s profound deafness from birth, Dan has mental health issues that result in an extreme stammer and auditory hallucinations. Where Billy can’t hear anything at all, Dan hears too much.
It’s when Billy brings home Sylvia, a woman born into a deaf family who’s been gradually losing her hearing since childhood, that the cracks in this already dysfunctional family start to appear. It’s here that the tribes of the title raise their head – should deafness define a person? It’s only when Billy attends social functions with Sylvia and other deaf people that he realises how distant his family can be with him. After all, his father would rather study Chinese than learn sign language.
It’s these topics of identity and miscommunication that Raine tries to tackle in Tribes, although sometimes it feels like she’s trying to cram too much in. Despite the unpleasantness of most of the characters, there’s much to enjoy in the one-liners being tossed across the stage (Simon Rouse gets the lion’s share of the laughs as the monstrous Christopher, while Louisa Connolly-Burnham makes a terrific professional stage debut as daughter Ruth).
It’s in the relationship between Billy and Dan that the emotional centre of Tribes lies, though. Oliver Johnstone is all too believable as the brash, arrogant exterior of his character is gradually worn away, his stammer returning with the threat of his brother becoming independent. Ciaran Alexander Stewart and Emily Howlett (the only two actors in the cast who are actually deaf) are the two most sympathetic characters, and you really do find yourself rooting for them as the play progresses.
Kate Hewitt’s direction is mostly intimate and unshowy, although she does add some terrifically memorable set-pieces in at times – especially during a particularly explosive family argument where the action freezes and a burst of white noise crackles over the stage, symbolising Billy’s deafness. There’s also good use of back projection for the occasional subtitle, and Amanda Stoodley’s stylish set sees the Studio turned into a typically middle-class family’s front room, all shiny wood and split levels.
There’s much to admire and enjoy in the performances, but Raine’s script falters at times. The happy ending she provides us with seems sudden and rather pat (love, you’ll be amazed to know, is the answer to most problems), while a sub-plot about Billy’s job working for the Crown Prosecution Service is suddenly introduced in the second half and never seems fully developed. Tribes probably won’t be to everyone’s tastes – indeed, there were a fair few seats empty after the interval on press night – but stick with it and it becomes a compelling portrait of a family unit too wrapped up in itself to notice it’s falling apart.
Tribes is at the Sheffield Crucible Studio until July 22nd. For more details, click here.