Fingersmiths theatre company specialises in “ways of presenting theatre which previously have not been available to deaf audiences in their own language”. In its new co-production with Sheffield Theatres, the troupe performs Charlotte Keatley’s 1987 classic using varying combinations of British sign language, quasi-mime gestures, spoken words, silently mouthed words, voiceover and surtitles (projected on to a kite-shaped screen, incorporated into Sophia Lovell Smith’s multipurpose set). The result is both thrilling and frustrating.
Set in Manchester, Oldham and London, Keatley’s action spans 1923 to 1987, following threads of entanglement and estrangement that bind together four generations of one family.
Years are shuffled into an emotional rather than chronological order as Doris, her daughter, Margaret, Margaret’s daughter, Jackie, and Jackie’s daughter, Rosie, struggle to reconcile competing personal and social constructs of motherhood, marriage, work and self-expression. Interspersed are scenes of the four playing together as young girls.
This demanding combination of complex construction and intricate presentational style needs crisp handling if the audience is to follow the plot and engage with the characters (well drawn by the ensemble, with special mention to Jude Mahon’s uptight Margaret and EJ Raymond’s guilt-ridden Jackie). At times, here, the multiple forms of communication are made to overlap in ways that seem more schematic than dramatic, and not enough thought has been given to clarity of enunciation – physical and vocal. This is the frustrating aspect of the production.
When everything meshes, though, we become so involved in the women’s lives we no longer notice the innovative means of delivery. This is what makes it thrilling.
• At the Crucible, Sheffield, until 23 November. The production will tour in spring 2020