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The Promise at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre | Review

James Boyle (Jake) and Anna Seymour (Rita) - credit Becky Bailey.
James Boyle (Jake) and Anna Seymour (Rita) – credit Becky Bailey.

Don’t expect a happy ending in The Promise, exploring Rita Gardiner’s (Anna Seymour) last few years. After a lifetime of teaching, she loses her husband Mike (Louis Neethling) and is subsequently diagnosed with vascular dementia. Previously a deaf educator, she lives alone, though a regular visitor, Jane (Erin Hutching) pops in when she can and provides some personal care. Jane’s father was good friends with the late Mike, but how desperate Rita’s plight has become is news to her son Jake (James Boyle, the first deaf man accepted into RADA, making his theatrical debut in this production), as mother and son became estranged after she failed to show up to Jake’s wedding.

The actual reason for the no-show becomes painstakingly clear: a headstrong woman, Rita made it to the airport but ended up confused at the various instructions being given to her, only by hearing people. That there is often translation of signage into foreign languages at airports is not portrayed in this production, mostly if not entirely because it isn’t relevant to Rita’s story: the salient point is that with no British Sign Language (BSL) speaker to hand, she genuinely didn’t understand why she wasn’t being allowed on the plane.

The traumatic experience stayed with Rita, and becomes an event her mind returns to repeatedly, even as her dementia progresses. The story is predominantly told in BSL – with surtitles – and deals, in one act, with a number of issues simultaneously, and with clarity. Not even the production’s time-hopping between scenes managed to confuse me. Mike’s outlook of homosexuality, in Jake’s youth, was nothing short of homophobic, and the show is careful not to portray the local ‘Deaf Club’ as being all-welcoming and inclusive.

Scenes are repeated, which may test the audience’s patience, but the technique serves as an insight into how dementia gradually devastates a person’s mind. A series of cognitive and neurological tests which Rita was asked to complete had mixed results – it was difficult not to root for Rita, even if the scene in question was about as riveting as watching an eye test. Some history and facts are wedged into the narrative, sometimes with subtlety. Rita took particular exception to the Warnock Committee’s report which led to the Education Act 1983, which ruled that children with special educational needs should be taught in mainstream schools unless there were very exceptional circumstances. Thus, the number of deaf pupils in specialist schools went down, and therefore a considerable number of specialist schools closed, much to the detriment of deaf children for various reasons beyond the scope of this review.

Perhaps the show doesn’t tell the deaf community anything they don’t already know, but I found it nonetheless to be an insightful experience. I wasn’t aware, for instance, that the care home provision for deaf BSL users is as sparse as it is. But it never felt like a lecture or a sermon: while its perspectives on the different themes it touches on are made clear, this thoughtful production never loses its focus on the very real people affected by ongoing issues that are seldom, if ever, reported on by mainstream media.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Rita can’t understand why the deaf education system she’s tirelessly championed throughout her teaching career is getting worse and worse, or why there is only one care home in the whole of England that looks after people in her language. On the Isle of Wight.

She’s also confused about where her family is, and why she can’t remember where the milk goes…

Associate Director – Lisa Kelly
Set & Costume Designer – Paul Burgess
Lighting Designer – Holly Ellis
Sound Designer & Composer – Marie Zschommler
Video Designer – Ben Glover
Associate Video Designer – Douglas Baker
Movement Director – Angela Gasparetto
BSL Director – David Sands
Shakespeare Translation – William Grint
Voice Coach – Zoe Littleton

Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, Deafinitely Theatre and Birmingham Rep present
The Promise
Written by Paula Garfield and Melissa Mostyn. Directed by Paula Garfield.
30 April – 11 May 2024
https://lyric.co.uk/

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