The Who’s Tommy: a review 

It was early this year that a good friend of mine and fellow actress, Donna Mullings, came over to my house with a favour to ask. She had a video audition to send off to a casting director and she needed it filmed urgently. 
Armed with only an iPhone, laptop and floor lamp we shot her audition piece in my dining room. The song was Pinball Wizard and the show that she landed a role in was The Who’s Tommy. 

I was thrilled for her. I knew that the musical was based on the 1969 concept album by The Who so there would be some juicy rock songs to enjoy and I also knew that the production of Tommy was a groundbreaking opportunity, part of a 6 year programme of work to initiate change in the mainstream theatre world. 

Tommy is led by New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich in association with Ramps on the Moon; a consortium of theatres across the country who have committed themselves to accessibility and inclusivity. Each theatre has agreed to commit to several things including integrating both disabled and non disabled artists and prioritising accessibility in their productions. 

They state that their shows must have an equal mix of disabled and non disabled artists; that the creative team must also be a 50/50 split between disabled and non disabled practitioners and also that accessibility must be embedded within the production. 

Tommy meets all of those points with its diverse cast of 22, captions, British Sign Language and audio description. So when the show came to Nottingham’s Playhouse last month I couldn’t wait to see how it all came together. 

The venue itself is gorgeously modern and easy to access. I was also offered a free ticket for a carer/communicator to join me. Entering the theatre, the layout is clear and deaf theatre goers are given seats in the middle area of the stalls – perfect for viewing the captions comfortably. 

The lead role of Tommy is played by William Grint, a deaf actor previously known for award winning short film Chasing Cotton Clouds. As the show opened to a signed song by Tommy, William signed clearly and emotively, evidently confident in his role. 

We then met Donna who played his Mother, Mrs Walker. The show guided us through her journey; the romance of meeting and marrying Captain Walker (Tommy’s Father), her grief when she was told her husband was missing and presumed dead, and her lustful passions with her new lover. It was a great role with varying emotions for Donna to really demonstrate her skills as an actress. 

Returning to the plot, it is when Captain Walker returns alive and well and Tommy witnesses his Mothers lover shoot his Father dead that Tommy locks himself in a “blind, deaf and dumb” world.

We then follow Tommy’s encounters with other people as he grows up and see how his talent for playing pinball despite being blind and deaf brings him fame and success. 

The storyline is unusual and uncomfortable at times especially when Tommy is molested by his Uncle Ernie. But the integration on stage between the artists and the languages was exceptionally interesting. 

Every deaf cast member had a hearing member who acted as their voice, singing whatever they signed. This form of shadowing was very effective and meant the signing cast could lead and participate in a song instead of sitting out the musical numbers.

I was also impressed by the high standard of dancers, notably Hearns Sebuado who is a deaf performer based in London. His technical brilliance stood out during the choreography of Pinball Wizard and his superb timing meant he blended in effortlessly with the group of hearing dancers. 

Acting and movement wise, there was little difference between the deaf and hearing cast. Sure, you could tell which performers were trained dancers and who were not. But overall the energy and power on stage was definitely that of an integrated, tight-knit group. There was no segregation.  

My only bugbear about the show was that in certain places the signing didn’t fuse as naturally as it could have. In the song “it’s a boy” when Mrs Walker gives birth to Tommy, a group of nurses begin singing and signing but the slow pace meant the signs looked unnatural, overly exaggerated and leaning towards the novelty element rather than accessibility.

Likewise in the song Acid Queen when there’s a killer solo by renowned actor Peter Straker he’s accompanied by two sign singers. Here the movement of the sign language was more alike to a dance routine than BSL which meant the meaning was lost. It looked fabulous but without the lyrics above the stage I wouldn’t have had a clue what they were saying.

That said, there were times when the signs and music fused perfectly. Captain Walkers song “See me, feel me” translated his dreamy voice beautifully and “Pinball Wizard” used fantastic dance choreography with sign language to depict the lyrics. The choreography by Mark Smith of Deaf Men Dancing was intricate, clever and catchy. 

I also take my hat off to Alim Jayda, the actor who played Mrs Walker’s lover. A hearing CODA (child of deaf adults,) he fluctuated brilliantly between BSL and spoken English and his talents in dance and acting are undeniable. 

Overall, what I loved about the show the most was how the actors’ disabilities aren’t really showcased as such but they’re simply merged in with everyone else. It makes you think if everyone on stage is different then surely that means we are ultimately all the same? 

There was a truly lovely feeling of unity that resonated from the cast which reverberated back into the theatre hall. The show ended with a standing ovation and many people, myself included, left the theatre singing/signing 😉

With so many cast members with varied types of disability there might have been a slight risk of the actors feeling like the token “fill-the-blanks” disabled person. But there is no denying that Ramps on the Moon are out to challenge misconceptions about who can be on stage and break barriers for artists nationwide. What a brilliant production to be part of!

Since seeing the show I have noticed casting calls from the same consortium of theatres looking to meet more deaf/disabled actors and also work with more deaf/disabled people on their creative teams. 

So if you’re a deaf or disabled artist or wanting to work in performing arts, check out and find out how you can be involved. 

Here’s to many more shows like Tommy! 


Deaffest 2017: a review 

I’ve been attending the festival Deaffest at Wolverhampton for many years now. This year was its 12th festival and boy has it come a long way since it first launched. 

Based on the theme “Discovery” this years festival promised to showcase undiscovered talent from around the globe and it brought over several high profile performers to do just that. 

The MC for both Friday’s opening night and Saturday’s awards ceremony was New York based ASL artist Douglas Ridloff. Charismatic and cheeky, he charmed the audience with his fluid International signs, assisted with both a BSL and American Sign Language interpreter on stage. 

USA rap artist Sean Forbes and his band also performed on both nights and when I wasn’t squealing like a teenage fan I really appreciated being seeing first hand how he fuses ASL/PSE (their version of SSE) with music and lyric videos. It’s unique, brashy and bold. 

Attendees were also able to meet Sean Berdy from the hit American series Switched at Birth and be wooed over by his successful attempt to fingerspell his name in BSL (go Sean!) 

Taiwan First Deaf Dance Group opened both evenings with dance routines that fused classical and modern choreography and Italian born VV maestro Giuseppe Giuranna made a special appearance with UK comedian John Smith. 

The audience were also treated to more British talent with performances by dancer Chris Fonseca, sign singer Colin Thomson and a Cirque VV show by Steve Webb and David Sands. 

They were all varied performances in style and pace, with literally something for everyone. But rather than have the same acts on both nights I think it would have been more effective to have different acts (and different jokes) per night as I had a slight case of Deja Vu on the Saturday… didn’t I see you guys yesterday??

All in all it was a jam packed programme, highly exciting yet a little haphazard when it came to the smooth running of the evening programmes. Highly surprising considering the amount of people involved! 

Anyhow, while Deaffest began as primarily just a film festival it appears to now be much more inclusive of other arts; with VV, comedy and drama workshops, live performances and a sign karaoke too all taking place over the weekend. For only £2 entry during the day you certainly do get a lot for your money! 

Saying that, I do feel that by showing films and holding talks/workshops simultaneously throughout the Saturday, it leaves attendees with a difficult choice regarding how to spend their time. 

Personally I was disappointed that I couldn’t go to the acting workshop AND watch the nominations for best film/television programme. It was also impossible to watch Sean Berdy’s talk and view the nominations for best artistic short film. 

It meant that when the winners were revealed during the awards ceremony, there were a few winning films that I had not even seen. 

The festival definitely drew in a great crowd for the whole weekend  and another highlight for me was Birmingham  based illusionist / magic artist iNfInItY who treated us to some tricks as he weaved his way in and out of the crowds. He dumbfounded us when he took a 20p coin from my husband, rubbed it and bent it before our very eyes! Sheer entertainment indeed. 

Attendees were also introduced to Rachel Shenton, a hearing British actress and Deaffest’s patron who has a short film in production that centres around a profoundly deaf girl. Keep your eyes peeled for The Silent Child when it’s released, featuring an authentic young deaf actress. (Hurrah!) 

Deaf Funny, written and directed by Limping Chicken’s very own Charlie Swinbourne, also premiered at the festival and is released on BSL Zone this week for your own viewing pleasure! 

And without blowing my own trumpet too much, I was fortunate enough to be part of Macbrew, an inclusive piece of theatre based around Shakespeare’s witches from Macbeth. It was a pop up style performance that took place in the venue’s cafe twice on the Saturday and surprised those sipping on their coffees.. Inclusive theatre while you have your lunch – why not?! 

The Sunday’s programme was purely film showings and included a subtitled screening of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. 

On the whole it was an exuberant weekend and really delivered on its promise to show international talent and demonstrate how collaborations can be formed. But let us not lose sight of the real reason we attend Deaffest; to celebrate our deaf films and nurture the talent that creates these. I’d love to see more opportunities for budding directors, editors and writers as it seems that those onstage seem to (ironically) steal the limelight. 

Great job though, Deaffest. You’ve got people talking, facebooking and tweeting about how enjoyable the festival was, even if they’re just swooning over the American stars 😉 anything that brings deaf art together definitely wins my acclaim and that is why I will certainly be returning to see what more delights your festival has on offer for us. 

Cue compulsory fan photo! (Me with the legend that is Sean Forbes ☺️)

The first National Sign Choir Competition – a reflection 

Last month the first national signing choir competition took place in Nottingham. Organised by Simon Astill of Harmoneyes, there were four junior choirs and ten senior groups that had travelled across the country to compete. 

As one of three judges I was really looking forward to seeing so many sign song enthusiasts come together. The mayor of Nottingham attended the evening which played to a full house, with coverage from the local media as well as See Hear. The event was also hosted by Stewart Hill, an ex soldier who was part of the Invictus choir led by the BBC’s Gareth Malone. 

As the signing choir competition began it was clear that although the standard differed from group to group, there was great potential for development and artistic success within sign song. 

The winners of the junior group, de Ferrers signing choir, were a passionate choir whose eyes sparkled when they signed. Each performer was confident and their professionalism edged them into the lead for sure. The senior category was won by Dee-Sign of Chester who cleverly fused BSL signs with English lyrics and performed a highly polished Abba medley with intricate choreography. 

Yet there are also a few others that deserve a special mention. Heathlands school had charismatic, charming performers sign What a Wonderful World. Their artistry and sign language skills were astounding and they had me smiling throughout. Being an all deaf group, I felt proud of how beautifully they portrayed the lyrics and still honoured the timing of the song. I feel this strength in BSL performers is where attention must be poured in order for sign song to grow in popularity amongst deaf community. 

Another of my favourites was Vision signing choir from Kent. Their rendition of Phantom of the Opera remained with me for days after. I was only vaguely familiar with the song beforehand but the clarity of their signs transported me to the haunting setting of the Phantoms opera.  The way in which they portrayed the dramatic chord changes using their hands was brilliant and their faces of longing and desire depicted the ambience of the Phantom perfectly. I loved it. 

Another memorable group was Revolution signing choir who performed a funk routine and fused their signs into choreographed movements that helped me feel the beat and made me want to get up and dance.  They were fresh and innovative and I loved seeing the freedom of dance routines within their set. 

All of the choirs mentioned above had unique strengths which distinguished them from the rest with such a variety of performance styles. It was endearing to see so many people enjoying sign song and experimenting with its delivery. 

I’m aware a lot of sign choirs are formed as a practice group for those learning BSL and most perform at fundraising events for charities. They are raising the profile of sign language and deaf awareness. So regardless of how adept or not their signing may be, they clearly have a love for the language. 

Yet there’s an elephant in the room that I have to address. Where were all the deaf people?!

Out of the 14 choirs on the night I saw only one all deaf group and the rest had one or two but mostly zero deaf performers in their group. So what’s going on? After all, wasn’t it the deaf congregations in churches that sign song was born out of? Why are there so few deaf sign singers now? 

Speaking to audience members after the show, I began to get a clearer picture of why this may be. A deaf couple approached me and told me their views, asking me a question that sparked a lot of thought;

“Why do the hearing own signed song?”

Its our language! the couple told me. And yes, it is ours. But it’s ours to share. The real crux of the matter isn’t that hearing people own signed songs but that there is a serious lack of deaf representation when it comes to signing choirs. 

Deaf children don’t grow up watching signed choirs like hearing children do listening to pop groups. Therefore where’s the encouragement to perform going to come from? That’s why the group from Heathlands are especially inspiring because they are paving the way for a fresh take on sign singing, right from the hands of deaf children. 

I feel it’s not about taking ownership of sign song away from hearing people but claiming our stakes in it too. Don’t be afraid to try something just because of a preconception that it’s owned by those who can hear. 

Sure, being deaf means the task of learning a song’s intricate make up is harder. Rhythms have to be memorised or cues used. Beats have to be broken down and dynamics explained. But it’s not impossible. And a hearing person will have a whole other battle to contend with when learning sign song; the translation. 

So at the end of the day when it comes to being a good sign choir – it’s all about artistry. Whether you’re deaf or hearing, in my eyes, is irrelevant. A native user of sign language who embodies a song can be anyone. An all deaf group can do it just as well as a hearing one. 

So perhaps there’s hardly any deaf performers because there’s a preconception that it’s something only hearing people do. Or maybe it’s just because the groups are formed at centres where (predominantly hearing) people go and learn how to sign. Or maybe with so many deaf children dispersing into mainstream schools it’s harder to find them and thus introduce them to a sign choir. 

The possibilities are many but this fact is clear; there is no reason why we can’t have more deaf groups leading the way for sign choirs. It will require a change in viewpoint and it may need some deaf leaders to come forward and initiate a change in how the art form is delivered. As deaf people, we were the original sign singers so rather than seeing it as something only for those who can hear, why not be pioneers for a new way forward? 

The next national sign choir competition will take place in Liverpool in 2018. I think it’s time to get practising, dont you? See you there 🙂 

How a GCSE in BSL would’ve changed my time at school… 

When I sat my GCSE’s some fifteen years ago, I remember struggling to pass my French exam. The hearing impaired unit at the mainstream school I attended didn’t approve of me taking a French GCSE (probably due to low expectations) so I wasn’t given any support. Instead my class teacher gave me extra work to take home, one on one tuition and cassettes that I was supposed to listen to. 

The tapes didn’t work for me; I couldn’t hear them. And I found the class intimidating and nerve wracking especially when we were asked to stand and read segments of French text. My face would turn blood red as I tried not only to project my voice but get the French pronunciation correct. 

In order to take my listening exam my teacher arranged for me to sit the test separately, and to lipread him saying the phrases instead. Talk about pressure. 

I managed to (somehow) pass the GCSE but I’ve not retained any of the language skills nor been able to put them to use. 

So when I heard about a petition to make BSL a GCSE and part of the national curriculum I was really interested. If BSL was one of the options available when I was at school I know I would’ve jumped at it. And to be completely frank, I think it would have totally changed me. 

I went to a bustling mainstream with a unit for the hearing impaired. In my year alone there were around 150 hearing pupils and 4 of us were deaf. In the entire school the unit was made up of around 15-20 students with a hearing loss. It’s not a massive number but it means my classmates were used to seeing support workers, note takers, interpreters and so on. 

Yet sign language or deaf awareness were never mentioned to the rest of the school. I witnessed a few deaf students being mocked by their hearing peers for signing and although I was never bullied I remember being told that I “talk weird” and having classmates shout my name to check if I could hear them. 

Most of the deaf pupils were taken out of lessons to receive support and tuition in the unit base and that meant they were segregated from a lot of school events. I say “they” because I was never pulled out of a class – although I often wished I was. 

It’s not my intention to discuss whether mainstreaming is best for deaf children but I really feel that if BSL was made more accessible and deaf awareness shared amongst my peers that perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so different at school. Having a BSL GCSE would have changed my school experience for sure. How?

1. Well, communication would have been easier for a start. There were so many students and so many teachers that communicating with everyone fluently wasn’t just difficult; it was impossible somedays. By learning sign language my peers would’ve been able to use this language with me and other deaf students every day.  The language barrier between us would have been raised so it wouldn’t be us versus them anymore. I could have gotten to know more pupils and others could have gotten to know me. 

2. I reckon it would have given me a lot more confidence if deaf issues and sign language were spoken about during my teenage years. It would have normalised the whole thing, I could have developed a sense of humour about it earlier on and felt more comfortable with who I was. I hated the phonic aid equipment because I felt awkward and unattractive enough compared to my cool, popular year girls. But by having a tutor who was also deaf and shining a light on deaf issues I could have seen a whole other side to being deaf that wasn’t just full of misunderstandings and struggles. I could have even enjoyed the spotlight a little 😉 

3. I could have found a deaf role model; something that I never had. I was always fascinated by the term deaf culture and deaf history, but I felt they were out of reach to me. By learning about people such as Dot Miles and other prominent deaf people in history, I could have felt a sense of belonging, of purpose earlier on. I always had aspirations growing up but I approached them with a sense of overcoming my deafness instead of accepting and working with it. 
4. My sign language skills would have been more proficient from a younger age. Despite being amongst other deaf students and having support workers in class, we used SSE and my knowledge of BSL as a language was non existent. Your sign language skills depend on what you’re regularly exposed to and it meant that when I came across other deaf people I struggled to follow them and they would “fow” me. (Fow – the BSL for not having a clue what somebody’s said.) But by studying BSL I would have been given access to a language that was not only for people like me but would have opened many doors when it came to meeting others. 

5. Instead of struggling through a foreign language I could have excelled at one that was of enormous relevance to me. I could have finally sat through a class, engrossed, excited and for once feeling proud about my deafness. I would have delved into learning BSL and all things related and it would have added so much more enjoyment to my high school experience. I would’ve worked hard at it and who knows, maybe it would have shaped my education path differently.

I can wholeheartedly see BSL as a GCSE being of enormous benefit to our society. When you talk about things (especially when you’re young) it normalises those issues to a degree so it would become not so strange to see people signing or wearing an aid. 

With hearing loss being something that affects 1 in 7 people in the UK, you are very likely to bump into someone who is deaf or come across them in your line of work. So BSL would be a GCSE that’s not only extremely useful to the increasing number of deaf students going into mainstream schools but also to the rest of hearing society. 

The government have responded to the petition stating that as its a subject that would be difficult to “record” it’s not up for consideration to be part of the national curriculum yet. But Signature are trialling the subject in six schools and will be presenting evidence of its (hopefully) success afterwards. 

As something that could shape the school life of deaf generations to come, I will be watching the progress of this with eager eyes.