REVIEW: Horrible Histories: Dreadful deaf (Bristol Old Vic) ★★★★

Deafinitely Theatre – the UK’s first professional deaf-launched and led theatre company, has joined forces with Birmingham Stage Company to present the world premiere of ‘Horrible Histories: Dreadful Deaf’, to create the first dedicated production for deaf children and their families.

The show puts an overdue spotlight on the stories and culture of deaf people throughout history, focusing on their fight against the considerable oppression they faced. From being unable to marry, own a house, or fight in war, to being thrown to their deaths for being deaf, a clear picture is painted of quite how horrible a history this was. All of this is lightened through child-friendly humour, such as the graphic illustration of the role wee and ear wax played in attempts to find a ‘cure’!

Historical figures are brought to life, from Samuel Pepys being told of the Great Fire of London by a young deaf boy; to the courageous role of deaf suffragist Kate Harvey being captured. Telephone inventor Graham Bell’s depiction is far from flattering as he galvanised public opinion against sign language, despite both his wife and mother being deaf.

Two of the actors – Fifi Garfield and Nadeem Islam – are deaf, and they worked with hearing BSL interpreter Naomi Gray, with all words signed, and sign language spoken. Naomi often played the oppressor, Fifi and Nadeem our champions. She acted both as a reminder of how our lack of understanding led to a lack of compassion, but she also acts as a bridge for the hearing audience less familiar with BSL. Fifi and Nadeem played with great energy and their physical movements told a story as much as words, as they took us along the journey from being maligned to accepted.

Their interplay and use of slapstick made this serious subject silly, fun and hugely engaging for an audience of hearing and non-hearing alike – of all ages. Our nearly-one year old baby adored the sounds and atmosphere just as much as the elderly couple across from us. It felt poignant to see the impact these stories (and their hugely accessible way of telling them) had on fellow audience members who were deaf and having deaf history brought to life for the first time, ending with a loud and defiant song about breaking free from oppression.

Hugely informative, entertaining and fun!

Reviewed by Kitty Beiderbecke


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