To paraphrase Lloyd Grossman,”Who’d want to live in a house like this?”
Unsurprisingly some of the Royal Court audience had taken a break from their middle class, liberal-minded domiciles to recognise themselves on stage, laughing appreciatively when ghastly, opinionated academic pater Christopher (Stanley Townsend) asks his returned-to-nesters when they were going to f*ck off.
Fair enough. His family are almost all equally ghastly. Garrulous, self-obsessed and spiky: son Daniel (Harry Treadaway) is working on a linguistics thesis, daughter Ruth (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is an aspiring singer of opera (translated into English) and wife Beth (Kika Markham) is a novelist.
They are all in some way connected with language but not so hot on communication and profoundly deaf son Billy (Jacob Casselden) struggles to be heard in a family incapable of listening to each other.
Isolated from the ongoing family banter by his deafness, Billy’s hasn’t picked up the egocentric traits of the rest. He’s the the only sympathetic one, so sympathetic in fact that throughout Act 1 there were some rather patronising “Awwwwwws” and “Ahhhhhs” emitted from a row behind the Whingers almost every time he struggled to be listened to.
This tribe may be awful, but they’re terrifically entertaining to watch unless, presumably you’re part of Tribes playwright Nina Raine‘s family. She is the daughter of poet and critic Craig Raine, a leading exponent of Martian Poetry . For their sake let’s hope she wasn’t following the edict “write about what you know”. How wonderfully squirm-inducing to be there the night they attend.
Act 1 is sharp, funny and – no mean feat – it prompted the Whingers to don their thinking caps, removing them only to scratch each others’ heads with wild abandon as they watched the family bickering round the family dining table.
Then Billy brings his new girlfriend home to meet his monstrous clan. Imagine Children of a Lesser God colliding with Meet the Fockers. Sylvia (Michelle Terry – excellent) is going deaf and is teaching Billy sign language, something his family had decided against, claiming they didn’t want Billy to be ghettoised by his deafness. Sylvia has been spending a lot of time in the deaf “community” but as Billy embraces that tribe, Sylvia becomes increasingly disenchanted with it.
It’s an incredibly rich play stuffed full of ideas and humour but it’s also very touching. The Whingers were swept along by it and the time flew by despite Phil having a few cavils about an unnecessary plot development in Act 2. Both Whingers found Casselden particularly effective.
Like the Royal Court’s wonderful Clybourne Park (Wyndham’s Theatre from January) – which also features a deaf character – Tribes has the potential for a West End transfer.
It was also good to see an ironing board board return to the Royal Court stage. Phil hates ironing (not that you would know it) but Andrew likes nothing more than giving his attention-seeking shirts a good steam in front of a Miss Marple (not that you’d know it). But the ironing though was sadly unconvincing – despite the fact that it was merely a lesson in how to iron sheets – and the result looked little different at the end. Andrew wished they had demonstrated how to iron a fitted sheet which really would have been useful. But, since this is the Court, this was no doubt all a metaphor for the characters on stage, the sheet too in its own world, oblivious to the iron’s entreaties for it to change or something.
Anyway top marks to just about everyone including director Roger Michell for creating a sparkling, thought provoking and enjoyable evening. Brilliant stuff. Just don’t sit on the extreme right hand side of the auditorium unless you want to hear the audience clattering down the stairs as they turn out from the theatre upstairs during a poignant moment during the Act Two.