fingersmiths score a try with the aesthetics of access in mind

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John Godber’s acclaimed 1984 play Up ’n’ Under has been revamped by Fingersmiths, the stella theatre company behind 2014’s Frozen. Known for their use of hearing and non-hearing actors, fingersmiths have put on a show that retains all the humour of the classic production, whilst managing to shed light on the some of the communication barriers between those who speak and those who sign. Review by James Zatka-Haas

Photo of three actors dressed in blue rugby kit.

fingermiths take Up ‘n’ Under on a UK tour. Photo from left to right M Gurney, W Norman, A Bassett. Credit: Mike Kwasniak

The play follows the antics of The Wheatsheaf Arms’ incompetent but altogether loveable deaf rugby squad, and their well intentioned, but BSL inept coach Arthur (played by Wayne Norman.) Arthur – having staked his house on a bet with long time rival Reg (William Elliot) – tries desperately to whip the boys into shape for the final with Reg’s team The Cobblers Arms, the unbeaten champions of Castleford’s Amateur Seven-A-Side Tournament.

Each member of the underdog team is their own brand of hapless. We have the seemingly sensible, but equally incompetent Phill (Adam Bassett), the looming giant Frank (Matty Gurney), the cowardly Steve (Stephen Collins) and the young and needy Tony (Nadeem Islam.)

The only sensible character is Hazel (played by Tanya Vital) who acts as the groups trainer and resident bully. They all work spectacularly together – each bringing a distinct style of funny individually, but also proving their complete and utter ineptitude as a group, A quirk that only made the audience want to rally behind them further.

Though communicating mainly in sign, the teams’ masterful use of subtle facial gestures and clever use of physical comedy meant the jokes rarely missed a beat, and could be received by everyone. Special credit has to be given to Matty Gurney, whose wild eyed and bombastic performance really owned the stage.

Technically, the production team utilised some clever tricks with captioning that not only provided greater accessibility, but managed to anthropomorphise this dramaturgical device. And so, in order for Arthur to understand what was being signed by other characters, the caption screen above the stage would explain and interact, helping the BSL inept Arthur to better understand the language.

As well as adding to the overall atmosphere of the piece, fingersmiths’ Up ‘n’ Under isn’t just a remake of the original involving a cast of D/deaf and hearing actors, but is a show that explores the communication barriers between those two distinct languages, executed with immense respect for each.

Photo of the cast of fingersmiths' 'Up 'n' Under'

fingermiths take Up ‘n’ Under on a UK tour. Photo: Mike Kwasniak

Inevitably not every aspect of the performance was going to be perfectly smooth, but the show worked because it is incredibly funny.  It’s funny if you sign, and it’s funny if you don’t. Some jokes were directed at D/deaf members of audience, and others at the hearing; though most managed to come through on both levels simultaneously.

It made for a performance that was not only hugely enjoyable, but one that proved that there is nothing more universal, more able to traverse language barriers than a well-timed joke.

Up ’n’ Under is currently undergoing a UK tour, travelling to Harrogate Theatre (Thurs 22nd – Sat 24 Feb), Oxford Playhouse (Tue 27 Feb), Cast Doncaster (Thurs 1 – Sat 3 March), The Lowry Manchester (Tue 6 & Wed 7 March), Derby Theatre Studio (Fri 9 – Sat 10 March), Birmingham REP Studio (Mon 12 – Wed 14 March), The Crucible Theatre Sheffield Studio (Fri 16 – Sat 17 March), Northcott Theatre Exeter (Thurs 22 – Sat 24 March)

For further details of the tour please click on this link to the fingersmith’s website.