UP ‘N’ UNDER
The REP, Birmingham, Monday 12th March, 2018
John Godber’s 1984 comedy is doing the rounds in this new revival by Fingersmiths, a company that incorporates deaf actors and British Sign Language into plays. Having seen their Frozen (not the Disney one!) a while back and knowing how effective their approach is with a drama, I was interested to see how they’d manage something lighter. BSL, a visual language, with its gestures and exaggerated facial expressions lends itself very well to comedy, it turns out. There is one point when it’s purely signed and I can’t follow it – a clever way of demonstrating what it must be like for the deaf when there are no signs or captions.
The plot is nothing groundbreaking: a ragbag team of underdogs strive toward a common goal. In this one, it’s a pub rugby team struggling to win against the odds. It’s all because of a rash wager made by Arthur (Wayne Norman). He bets his house, but the terms of the bet are reduced to three grand. And so, the stakes aren’t all that high, the jeopardy isn’t that perilous… In the event, it’s not the plot that keeps me interested. The production is a triumph of form over content as the sign language is supplemented with surtitles and voice-overs, each cleverly and wittily included. That Arthur can’t speak BSL adds another obstacle to his challenge, and leads to some cringeworthy moments as he persists in raising his voice in order to communicate!
The team is comprised of Frank (Matty Gurney), Steve (Stephen Collins), Tony (Nadeem Islam), and Phil (Adam Bassett). Each of them is, shall I say, a lovely mover, skilled at heightened expressions, working with clarity and precision. I was concerned my ignorance of both rugby and sign language would be a barrier to my enjoyment. I needn’t have worried. Collins warms into his role nicely, demonstrating excellent comic timing. Islam is graceful – in a cartoony way. Bassett performs a dream sequence, a piece of dumb show to a voice-over, that is highly effective, and Gurney, the largest of the group, is both an imposing presence and a subtle one. Each man brings something to the ensemble and they all get loads of laughs.
The only female in the cast is Hazel (Tanya Vital) the ‘grown-up’ recruited to get these man-children into shape. Vital also operates as a narrator, starting us off with a prologue and linking scenes with descriptive passages. Godber’s writing is pseudo-Shakespearean here, elevating the humble pub team to heroic proportions. Maybe. Vital’s vitality is the lynchpin of the performance, our touchstone in this esoteric world.
As ostensible villain of the piece, Reg, William Elliott completes the cast, also providing sports commentary. Added together, this is a tight ensemble. While the play is now old hat – especially where its sexual politics are concerned – this fresh approach keeps us hooked. I find myself more interested in the way it is done, rather than what the characters are doing. Where it works best is the climactic match, cleverly staged: a nifty bit of costume design means the cast can play both teams at the same time. Director Jeni Draper pulls all the elements together for a pleasing denouement, but I don’t feel the production gets beyond its novelty value to make us care for the characters and their ups and downs (or should that be ‘unders’?)