Taking its cue from Marjorie Wallace’s 1986 book The Silent Twins charting the story of the ‘elective mute’ twins June and Jennifer Gibbons, Polly Teale (who also directs) and Linda Brogan’s play Speechless (which premiered at Edinburgh last year) is the ‘other’ play currently in London that opens with a rendition of William Blake’s hymn ‘Jerusalem.’ June and Jennifer were Welsh-born of West Indian parents who, like many others, believed Great Britain to be the promised land. Like Shared Experience’s recent production Brontë, the Gibbons are another troubled set of sisters with literary ambitions (we see them staying up all night ferociously typing their novels) who operate in a fantasy world; they refuse to speak or make eye contact with others, but, when alone, show themselves to be highly perceptive and articulate observers of the world around them.
The love-hate relationship between the sisters is exemplified in the visceral opening montage as they strangle and embrace each other in confinement at Broadmoor. The story is narrated in a flashback: having been asked to leave their secondary modern where they are the only black pupils and the victims of racist bullying at the age of fourteen, they are referred to a specialised support unit where the teachers are addressed by their first names and no uniform is worn (their mother does not approve). Mrs Gibbons (Anita Reynolds) is bemused as to how her ‘twinnies’ who have had a good Christian upbringing could find themselves in such a situation, yet the problem began when they were only four.
There are fearless performances by Natasha Gordon and Demi Oyediran as Jennifer and June, who make remarkably believable teenagers. Their mirrored movements and silent communication out of the furthest corners of their eyes is truly unnerving, but alone in their bedroom, they share the same anxieties as any ‘normal’ teenage girls who are curious about romantic love, dislike their appearance and feel embarrassed of their mother, excluded from the other RAF wives’ coffee mornings and Tupperware parties, making fun of her strong West Indian accent and attempts to be British. The idolisation of royalty, with the peeling images of Lady Diana on the wall and a delightful re-enactment the Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee with their (white, blonde) Barbie dolls shows the power of pageantry on their imaginations, though some of the references to 1980s popular culture are rather heavy-handed.
The only male presence in the cast of five, Kennedy (Alex Robertson), is clumsily shoehorned into the narrative. Robertson is far too mature to convince as the troubled American youth to whom the twins lose their virginities in a most unromantic fashion while Mrs Gibbons swoons as Charles and Diana’s fairytale romance culminates on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The disturbing parallel of these sacrificial lambs takes place against a backdrop of rioting that is brought to life by a storm of clutter.
Focusing on the twins’ adolescence and ending with the arson attack on their school that had them committed to Broadmoor, the most bizarre twist in the story – Jennifer died on the day that she and June were discharged – isn’t dramatised. If it was fiction, it would seem too symbolic to be convincing. The separation is hinted at by portraying Jennifer as the more domineering twin with her declarations of “You are Jennifer. You are me “ Unlike many other fact-based plays, there isn’t a projected postscript explaining what happened next, leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions from this somewhat disjointed dramatisation of a story that exemplifies the idea of truth being stranger than fiction.