Review: Tribes

Tom Bevan 4 November 2015

The first thing everyone will notice when you see Tribes at the ADC is the genius of Jack Parham’s amazing set design. Book cases loaded with literature, Russian dolls, a guitar; all the trappings of a ‘conventionally unconventional’ bohemian home, with an emphasis on creative expression, something that characters will struggle with as the excellent play goes on.

The family is both argumentative and loving; mother, father, a daughter and two sons, one of whom is deaf but wishes he had a more reciprocal mode of communication after he meets Sylvia, a woman going deaf who can sign. Mark Milligan as the deaf son Billy was a wonderful surprise to me. Normally an actor bursting with manic energy, here he was subtle, tense and incredibly moving. Small movements of the head in the early scenes were enough to draw attention to him as the silent presence who is being ignored next to his explosive siblings (the excellent Alice Carlill and Jonah Hauer-King). His relationship with Sylvia, sensitively played by Bea Svistunenko, was at its best during the dinner-party scene amidst cringe-worthy comments from his family; the couple tenderly evoked their own private world through sign language.

The parents (Rebecca Cusack and Alisdair McNab) were brilliant – where do Cambridge students acquire the ability to play middle-aged people so convincingly? McNab as Christopher was, in some ways, a perfect monster. After yelling "cunt" within the first few minutes of the play, he began his tirades against Northerners, the deaf community and anyone outside the family – though his family members were also never safe from abuse – painting him as an intolerant bastard. Yet in McNab’s portrayal, he was not only very funny but a compelling stage presence.

Music was important thematically as a medium of wordless communication but the placing of it within the play was slightly clumsy at times; the first few loud blasts were not always well integrated with the script. Also, the pacing did slacken slightly in the second half when some of the intense energy of the first got lost; slowing down was necessary for the action, but dramatic tension needed to remain sharp.

However, this production, with its terrifically strong cast and stunning set, created a sense of intimacy and touching emotion that can be difficult to capture on stage at the ADC. To anyone feeling those Week Five blues creeping in, see this show for surely the best that Cambridge theatre has to offer.