Phil Morris reviews FOW, the digitally staged play from Deaf & Fabulous Productions and Taking Flight Theatre Company which tells a romantic comedy story through Welsh language, English language and British Sign Language.
Four Weddings and a Funeral re-invented the British rom-com in 1994; with young, attractive people negotiating their way round each other’s fragile hearts with self-deprecating humour and brittle charm. The film featured a prominent role for Welsh actor David Bower, who memorably played Hugh Grant’s brother in an all-too rare appearance for a deaf character and British Sign Language (BSL) in our cultural mainstream. FOW is an engaging and frequently funny piece of digitally staged theatre that adopts familiar tropes from the Richard Curtis template: a ‘cute’ first meeting, ensuing struggles with emotional commitment and a climactic awkward declaration of love that refers to a piece of pop culture. Yet whereas the deafness of Bower’s character in Four Weddings came across as a rather well-intentioned — and perhaps over-deliberate — gesture toward inclusiveness tacked on to a glossy film version of Tatler’s society pages, FOW incorporates deafness in the fabric of its story and presents the struggles of a young deaf woman to make herself ‘heard’ as the chief obstacle that she, as the main protagonist, must overcome to find love and happiness.
This trilingual production shifts from Welsh to BSL to English, in a manner that is sometimes challenging but always thought-provoking, as language becomes a territory that must be navigated thoughtfully, tenderly and with good humour, if people are to communicate with genuine understanding. The script by Alun Saunders, based on a concept by lead actor Stephanie Back, offers few surprises in terms of its storyline but it very often surprises and amuses with its insights into the problems of making ourselves understood. Saunders has a lot of fun with the peculiarities of adequately translating words from one language to another and demonstrates a facility with snappy put-downs and sharp one-liners. Steph Back is warmly charismatic as Lissa, a spiky though vulnerable student who uses humour to deflect others and herself from the lingering isolation that came with childhood-onset deafness. Jed O’Reilly has bags of charm as her wannabe boyfriend Sion, whose internal voice is Welsh while his parents only speak English. Ioan Gwyn rounds out the cast as Josh, who has built a self-imposed wall between himself and his Polish wife Lek, and who refuses to speak Welsh when asked even though he can. As FOW turns from romantic comedy to family drama, it is increasingly apparent that rather than simply express emotions, language can repress and mask them.
Director Elise Davison imaginatively presents the script, which was previously conceived as a traditional stage play, in a digital performance that makes good use of the Zoom multi-screen and which evokes the panel-shaped format of the teenage magazine photo-story or graphic novel. Garrin Clarke and designer Becky Davies working wonders on what must have been a shoestring, provides effective digital animations that enable the production to escape the potential peril of getting visually bogged down in a procession of talking heads. There are occasional missteps, however: using hand-drawn figures on sticks to represent minor characters, which the cast then manipulate as rod-puppets, seems redolent of children’s theatre and is occasionally at odds with otherwise very believable and engaging performances.
The play’s title, FOW, refers to a term in BSL that denotes a something that has not been fully understood — roughly translating to something that has ‘gone over your head’. It is somewhat ironic, then, that the writer, director and cast of this bold production have created a work of such impressive clarity and purpose. FOW works as a highly entertaining, low-fi — albeit undemanding — rom-com that might find a bigger audience on a channel such as BBC3 or E4. Its considerable achievement, though, is to present the ways in which we isolate others when we fail to engage intelligently and compassionately with their language, and what we lose when we do so. Taking Flight demonstrate once again that lockdown is no barrier to ambition and innovation, and their regular collaborator Stephanie Back is one to watch out for in future.
To find out more about Taking Flight Theatre Company, visit their website here.
Phil Morris is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.