Two young women meet and gradually fall in love. Katie (Erin Siobhan Hutching) is profoundly deaf and a user of signing. Alana (Lara Steward) gradually learns it. As they get to know each other better they shift between oral language and signing because Katie can speak a little.
The issues come thick and fast. One is that we’re in a world in which signing is associated with terrorism so there’s a great deal of hostility and suspicion in public spaces. Another is that the deaf community is not about “abnormality” or people we should be pitying. These are normal people. They should have equal rights and be respected. This was – we are informed in an entertaining (sort of) epilogue – finally achieved only in 2003. Oralism (a new word and concept to me) has a lot to answer for.
The acting is powerful and Lucy Jane Atkinson directs with sensitivity. The Dorfman Theatre is configured end-on for this production so some of the audience, including me, is seated in the pit and quite close to the action. Over the simple set – a sitting room sofa with tables at either end of the space to suggest bars in some scenes – are screens on which some, but not all, the text is projected. As a hearing person it’s fascinating to be, for once, on the opposite side of the fence: watching signing but needing captions to understand it. It certainly makes you much more aware. I also relished hearing the many deaf people in the audience chuckling at jokes I couldn’t “hear” or understand – a novel and educative experience.
This moving, often funny piece – good on the love between its two characters – is the winning play in New Voices, the National Theatre’s playwriting competition for 14-19 year olds which attracted over 400 entries from 99 schools. Eloise Pennycott, who came on stage at the end to rapturous applause, is deaf herself. She’s a student at Southend High School for Girls in Essex. Although I found some of the scenes short to the point of bittiness (maybe something to revise if Barrier(s) gets a revival in the future) this very original play is a terrific achievement and I shall be surprised if we don’t hear a lot more of Eloise very soon.
First published by Sardines: https://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/review/barriers/