Theatre

‘Barrier(s)’ review – Deaf queer drama subverts your sympathy

★★★

The National Theatre’s Barrier(s) – penned by Deaf teenager and ‘New Views’ winner Eloise Pennycott – is remarkably intelligent in its underlying message, but the real tragedy of a tale about Deaf, lesbian relationship under threat is that the 45-minute running time doesn’t do it justice.

It follows the blossoming romance of awkward journalist Alana (Erin Siobhan Hutching) and cheeky teacher Katie (Lara Steward), the latter of whom is a Deaf cochlear implant user.

The development has the typical milestones, from timid drinks in a bar (in which text messages are illuminated on the panelled stage by Rachel Sampley), to moving in together, to marriage. The scene changes are rapid, abrupt and plentiful, navigated well by director Lucy Jane Atkinson given the play’s limitations, but mean the relationship lacks the necessary highs and lows, ebbs and flows one associates with a typical relationship. At one point, when the pair question their romantic future, Alana proposes they simply ‘skip to the part where we’re back in love again’, to which Katie promptly agrees. A longer duration for Barrier(s) would demonstrate that these conflicts aren’t so easily resolved, and a quick solution isn’t that simple.

That said, not once is it overtly stated that they’re queer or in a lesbian relationship – a refreshing change – as Alana continues to wrestle with learning British Sign Language (BSL) and unlearning her ingrained oralism. Meanwhile, in wider society, new legislation targeting the rights of BSL signers risks tearing their love apart.

Some smart ideas are alluded to in its dialogue, which is very matter-of-fact for the most part. In one of their arguments, Alana tells Katie she cannot simply “baby” her while trying to break down access for her partner. Accessibility and inclusion from the hearing majority can so easily be seen as something to be celebrated, when in many cases it is just providing the bare minimum. Here, Barrier(s) interrogates the audist – that is, discriminatory actions towards Deaf people – attitude that to provide access is to infantilise, rather than enable a Deaf person to navigate society independently. How I wish the play could have dug more into how hearing people can offer up the ‘right’ kind of allyship.

Though to Pennycott’s credit, when pointing out the things the majority of people shouldn’t think or do about deafness, she challenges it with playful sarcasm in the character of Katie. A direct address to the audience on the impact of Alexander Graham-Bell on Deaf education – complete with calling the infamous inventor an expletive beginning with ‘w’ – is particularly enjoyable, but far more interesting is its conclusion. It’s an ending I shan’t spoil here, but it’s provocative in its approach, shifting the spotlight onto the hearing gaze so readily applied to stories of deafness and disability. Perhaps that is the ‘barrier’ which underpins it all.

The final revelation the potential to catch hearing audiences off-guard and question preconceptions, but it feels to big of an ask – and too loaded – to put to the viewer after just 45 minutes. Barrier(s) is an impressive and ambitious debut for a young playwright, and I just hope it gets a longer life and running time to pack an even stronger punch.

Barrier(s) has its final performance at the Dorfman Theatre at 7:30pm this evening.


Production Images: Helen Murray.

Disclaimer: I was kindly given complimentary tickets for the show, but I did not receive payment for this review. While I know the writer, Eloise Pennycott, in a personal capacity, all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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