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. . . he's spent his life trying to understand you and now he thinks that you should try to understand him. — Sylvia
Jacob Casselden as Billy and Harry Treadaway as Daniel (Photo: Simon Annand)
The second play from Nina Raine after her award winning Rabbit looks at a deaf child brought up in a hearing family. The issues are as moral and as complex as a Greek tragedy. You see his family decide early on to help their deaf from birth son, Billy (Jacob Casselden) adjust to living in the world of hearing people. His mother Beth (Kika Markham) has painstakingly taught him to speak and to lip read so that he can function without needing to use sign language and without the need for others to sign to him. Billy's father Christopher (Stanley Townsend) advocates strongly what he wants for his son resisting Billy's categorisation and encouraging his independence. They want Billy not to be limited to communication within the deaf community or just with those who have learnt sign language. Their motives are honourable and applaudable but when Billy meets Sylvia (Michelle Terry) who has deaf parents and who is herself gradually going deaf, things change.

The family Billy finds himself in is noisy and confrontational. With all three grown up children living at home, the house is crowded. Billy's sister Ruth (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) wanna be singer and is at odds with their brother Daniel (Harry Treadaway) who has mental health issues and who is arguing with everybody. The result for Billy is pandemonium, a family where he misses much of the quick fire banter that is being exchanged and their refusal to take pains to explain when he asks what is going on. Billy feels left out.

When Billy brings Sylvia home, they discuss sign language and Daniel asks her to sign some of Milton's poetry. Sylvia's hand movements have real beauty. Sylvia suggests that Billy should work for the Crown Prosecution Service telling the police what is being said on video footage of suspected persons where the sound quality is poor because he is such an expert at lipreading.

Besides the debate about whether Billy should only use sign language to communicate
which is what he decides to do as an act of resistance — there is the distress Sylvia feels about the inevitable onset of her own deafness. In a moving scene she tells us how with her diminishing hearing about the loss of the enjoyment of music and how it has become just roaring background noise. Sylvia is the first point of contact Billy and his family have had with other deaf people, something Christopher has avoided.

Roger Michell's finely judged production gets some splendid performances from a strong cast. Stanley Townsend is always reliable in forceful roles and as the patriarch he excels. Kika Markham is his compromising wife made to wear the kimono she dislikes for the dinner party to please her husband. I very much liked Jacob Casseldine as Billy the pivotal character torn this way and that with finding his own identity and making the break that all children should make with their family but which is more difficult for those with a disability. Harry Treadaway comes of age as an actor in a challenging part as the troubled Daniel who needs his brother Billy. Treadaway pulls the role off to perfection in some of the most touching scenes in the play. Michelle Terry has great range. We know she excels in comic roles but here she has something with a more serious content as Sylvia, a part with sadness, who regrets the loss of her ability to be ironic.

Nina Raine has written an excellent and at times very amusing play about a modern family and the challenges they all face. Highly recommended.

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Written by Nina Raine
Directed by Roger Michell

Starring: Stanley Townsend, Harry Treadaway, Michelle Terry, Jaconb Casselden, Kika Markham, Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Design: Mark Thompson
Lighting: Rick Fisher
Sound: John Leonard
Running time: Two hours 5 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking at the Royal Court to 13th November 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 20th October 2010 performance at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AS (Tube: Sloane Square)

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