The title of this play seemed a little odd to me, but checking my trusty dictionary for the precise definition of a tribe proved enlightening – and I had the distinct impression that the writer – Nina Raine - may have also trodden the same path before me. The definition mentions families or communities with common cultures or dialect, or a 'distinctive close-knit social group'. That fits perfectly because two distinct and close-knit groups are spotlighted in this polished, humorous and affecting new drama.
'Tribes' starts with dinner in a family home. There are two parents – Christopher and Beth – and three grown-up children: Daniel, Billy and Ruth. Argument and language are important in this family. Two of the children – Daniel and Ruth – bicker almost incessantly. But the parents also squabble, in particular about the 'marriage breakdown detective novel' which Beth is writing. On the surface, it could be any family. Language is not only the way they communicate and express their opinions. The parents are writers and son Daniel is trying to complete his thesis which is itself about language.
Billy brings a different perspective to the idea of communication as he is deaf and has been from birth. And we recognise that he's something of an outsider in this linguistically-focused family. It's no surprise, then, when he announces that he has met someone – Sylvia – that she too is deaf and part of another 'tribe': the deaf community. And as the relationship between Billy and Sylvia develops, we realise that she is discontented with the deaf community which, she says, is 'hierarchical' in that those born deaf have more kudos in the group than those who become deaf later in life, for example.
Convincing performances from the ensemble cast and pacey direction from Roger Michell make a stimulating and absorbing combination. Harry Treadaway is the paranoid son who's recovering from a failed love affair and is bedevilled by critical voices in his head. Stanley Townsend is the rather bombastic father who describes the deaf community as 'not racists, but audists'. Michelle Terry as Sylvia, poignantly struggles to come to terms with her loss of hearing. And Billy is played by deaf actor Jacob Casselden who arouses our sympathy especially when he rails against his family because they opted not to learn sign language.
Surtitles – like subtitles in a film, but positioned over the action – are used to clarify some of the dialogue. The last time I encountered surtitles was at a rather tedious Spanish version of Peter Pan. I'm glad to see that they work more effectively here, and they're used as sparingly as possible.
'Tribes' isn't just about language and deafness. It's about a whole host of issues including loss, belonging and emotions. Nina Raines' thoughtful and witty script provides an insight not only into the world of the deaf, but also the way parents treat their deaf children, and how parental decisions, however well-intentioned, may impact adversely on their child. My only gripe with 'Tribes' is that the ending is unnecessarily contrived and posed, giving a sentimental denouement to what otherwise was a moving, authentic and very watchable piece.
"It is a lively, provocative piece that offers precious insights."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The exchanges here are razor-sharp as well as utterly credible."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"Tribes is a rare example of a middle-class family play that is much deeper than the usual domestic farce or soapy drama."
Aleks Sierz for The Stage
"At once funny and piercingly painful."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Fiercely intelligent, caustically funny and emotionally wrenching piece about communication, belonging, and identity."
Paul Taylor for The Independent