by guest critic Liam Rees
Birds of Paradise Theatre Company’s The Tin Soldier is a charming and inclusive alternative to the traditional pantomime. As a company specialising in making work with disabled people, it makes sense for the company to have chosen to adapt Hans Christian Andersen’s story as it’s one of the few children’s stories to feature a disabled protagonist.
Council block 35 Amici Drive and the pub attached to it are earmarked for demolition. Luxury flats and commercial retail units will replace it, and plans to rehouse current residents are vague. Money-grubbing developers and local counsellors push for “positive change” but those who live there are having none of it.
Scarlet and Olive were left behind when the evacuation transport left their town without them. A dust storm has rendered their home a foreign landscape. They have five days until the transport will return to collect any stragglers, and news is due over the radio at any time between now the then. The resourceful young women must work together to find water and build a shelter so they can survive until someone comes back to get them, and the audience of people with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) is there to help.
Discovery of the evening: Louis Braille was a child when he developed the alphabet of raised dots into the writing still used by blind and visually impaired people around the world today. It’s an especially impressive feat considering the run down and under-resourced institution he attended, Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris. However, the prevalent hostile attitude towards disabled people was a constant obstacle towards the system’s adoption; even the belief that blind people could be academically educated was radical at the time.
One of the durational works on Saturday afternoon is the six-hour Silent Dinner, where a group of D/deaf and hearing performers prepare a large meal without communicating in their native languages. There isn’t the rush of a professional kitchen, and sunlight streaming through the windows and lighting the rich colours of fresh ingredients is stunning in it’s peaceful simplicity. Watching them is a meditative exercise as they move around the rows of tables, silently and slowly preparing food that they will then eat together. It would be easy to sit with them all day as they take pleasure from the communal experience of cooking and eating.
A thing wot I learnt from theatre: there are people in the world that have a genetic disorder which gives them super stretchy skin. Whilst this is a great/horrifying party trick, historically it meant that people with this condition could join a travelling sideshow.
Nathan Penlington could be called a freak by those inclined to use such dated, derogatory language. He has a rare genetic disorder that, in him, manifests as hypermobility and chronic pain. But in other people it can make their skin stretch excessively. Penlington’s long-running fascination with sideshows combined with his own health issues, led him on a journey to a town in Florida with a unique history. His findings in the States, his research into sideshow culture and history, and a dash of disability rights combine to make solo performance/TED Talk work-in-progress Freak.
Elizabeth has two daughters. Her youngest is “fine”. Her eldest has profound hearing loss. This diagnosis, in our able-bodied world with all its bias and privilege for those that are “normal”, is a hard one to take. Elizabeth wrestles with guilt, frustration and the never before considered world of adaptation to suit her daughter’s needs.
Theatre maker and actor Erin Siobhan Hutching grew up in a mixed D/deaf and hearing household. Collaborating with the Deaf & Hearing Ensemble, People of the Eye is her story, and those of families everywhere. It tells of parents, siblings, signing and secret languages. Projections and signing facilitates aid accessibility and support storytelling, creating a heartwarming montage of moments. The story is thin, but the message is clear: living in both the D/deaf and hearing world is a blessing.
Emily Howlett performs with Hutching as Elizabeth’s eldest. She signs as well as speaks and takes on several roles: a doctor, a sign language teacher and one of the two central characters. She and Hutching have a lovely chemistry and are generally believable as young siblings. Hutching also switches between Elizabeth and her younger daughter; these transitions are not always clear.
There is an added pedagogic element of Elizabeth taking a sign language class where the audience becomes the rest of the class. Though good fun, it is slightly forced – the story of this family is much more engaging than a lesson.
People of the Eye could certainly do with fleshing out, and its initial premise and structure are robust enough to withstand further development. The performances are engaging and they provide a lovely insight into family life with a disabled family member. The visual structure is a model for other productions seeking to increase their accessibility and can easily be applied to shows where deafness is not specific to the script. It’s a fantastic start with great potential.
People of the Eye runs through 27th August.
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