BWW Review: TRIBES, Crucible Studio, Sheffield
What does it mean to belong? How is our identity shaped? How do we move from child to adult and renegotiate our relationship with our families? All these and more are the big questions posed in Nina Raine's Tribes, currently playing at the Crucible Studio.
The play features a family of five: writers Beth (Lindy Whiteford) and Christopher (Simon Rouse) and their three twentysomething children all returned home and struggling to find their place in the world. Daughter Ruth (Louisa Connolly-Burnham) is attempting to become a professional singer, with little success; son Dan (Oliver Johnstone) dreams of pursuing a career as an academic - yet has no clear sense of discipline or area of enquiry - and his father is convinced Dan's destiny lies in comedy. The crux of the story is what happens when youngest son Billy (Ciaran Alexander Stuart) returns from university - and starts dating Sylvia (Emily Howlett).
Like Billy, Sylvia is deaf, and she opens Billy's eyes to a range of experiences beyond those his family have given him. As he becomes more engaged with the deaf community - a concept his father utterly abhors - Billy questions the way he has been brought up and where he fits in the world.
The opening scene centres on the first family meal since Billy's return and whilst his parents and siblings trade insults across the dining table, Billy sits, mostly in silence - this is not simply about him being deaf whilst his family are hearing, it highlights a broader dynamic within the family. Billy, unlike his siblings, has grown away from the family in-jokes and arguments. He's discovered he wants to be something else, somewhere else.
Sylvia's arrival threatens the status quo, with Christopher and Dan particularly unhappy with her presence. References to Dan and Ruth's failed relationships hint at the family's unwillingness to think outside of their tiny bubble or allow outsiders into their gang. They are suffocatingly insular, and we can see that this is becoming toxic not only for Billy, but all of them. However, Sylvia too has had her own experiences in a close-knit community, causing tension between her and Billy as each is drawn to the world the other is trying to move away from.
The play is full of sparky dialogue and whilst its themes are not exactly subtly communicated, the fact that the majority of the characters are overblown people who spend their time arguing, debating and posturing means that the script largely gets away with this.
A few times, especially in the opening scenes, points were pushed a little too far and dialogue felt a little unnatural and forced, as if the audience weren't being trusted enough to understand what was being said. Interestingly, Nina Raine says this is the first scene she wrote and the one she'd changed least - but it probably should have received a tighter edit. However, as we got more into the heart of the drama, this either dissipated or I was caught up enough in the story not to mind so much.
The six performers are fantastic - not only did each embody their characters really effectively, there is a clear chemistry between them. The combination of script, performance and direction (by Kate Hewitt) quickly orientate us to know immediately who these people are, what they stand for, and how they feel about each other.
Although all the actors are excellent, some of the strongest scenes are those between Johnstone and Stewart. The loving and loathing of sibling relationships, and the tensions of wanting to fly the nest vs wanting to stay cocooned in the family home, are expertly drawn, and the way Dan crumbles as Billy becomes stronger is beautifully portrayed.
This is a really worthwhile watch - funny, emotive and very well put together. You might want to knock some sense into these characters at times, but you'll also recognise their struggles - don't we all have times of questioning who we are and where we belong?
Tribes is at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield, until Sat 22 July 2017. Several performances offer audio description, signing and/or captioning.
Photo by Mark Douet.