The Last Five Years: a Deaf perspective

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Leeway Productions’ version of The Last Five Years, is a reimagining of the popular Broadway musical with integrated British Sing Language, which is currently touring Wales. Maggie Hampton reviews the show from an access perspective, having caught one of the opening performances at Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff.

Michael Hamway and Anthony Snowden play Jamie in the Last 5 Years

The Last Five Years. Leeway Productions. Michael Hamway and Anthony Snowden (both Jamie Wellerstein). Photo by Kirsten McTernan

Having progressive deafness since childhood, my love of musicals is more or less confined to a timeline between West Side Story and Grease. After that, my hearing pretty much packed its bags and music was a lost world. I now have a cochlear implant (CI) and am learning to enjoy music again, so was keen to experience Leeway Productions’ The Last Five Years at Wales Millennium Centre. The production offered sign language, closed captions, deaf performers and choreography by Mark Smith, of Deaf Men Dancing fame.

As the audience filed in, a steward held out tablets (of the iPad kind!) with the letters CC lighting up the screens. No explanation was offered so I asked and was told that the tablets were our closed caption provision, if required. The venue was busy and it would have been easy to miss the tablets being handed out; this is a vital access provision which should have been made much more obvious. I spotted only a couple of other people using the captions.

In this production there was much to enjoy; live musicians on stage, fabulous voices, good sound quality, all packed into a 250-seat venue, which meant that my cyborg hearing was able to make pretty good sense of it. The closed caption tablets worked perfectly; the script was colour coded and appeared one sentence at a time which works well with the songs. The busy set and the lighting could have been a distraction – us deafies don’t always like too much visual noise – but for me, it wasn’t a problem. So far so good.

Jamie and Cathy in the LAst Five Years

The Last Five Years. Leeway Productions. Michael Hamway and Lauren Hood (Jamie Wellerstein and Cathy Hiatt). Photo by Kirsten McTernan

Each of the characters, Jamie and Cathy, were played by two performers simultaneously; a singer/actor and a signer/dancer. Anthony Snowden was a magnificent signing alter ego for Jamie, sung by Michael Hamway. He brought Deaf culture beautifully into the role; I loved the bits where he asked the other Jamie ‘What? Say again! Show me!?’ His comic timing was fabulous.

Raffie Julien was the signing Cathy, sung by Lauren Hood. Raffie used Sign Supported English which was very clear and easy to understand, but there was less of the alter ego in this relationship; it felt more hesitant.

Much as I enjoyed this production, I felt that Deaf culture got a little lost. Not everything was signed; significant gaps appeared which were only spoken or sung. There was some dancing behind coloured screens at one point, probably to indicate lack of communication, meaning the D/deaf audience were then completely reliant upon captions. Thus, there was not parity between spoken and signed languages. This was also evident in the sightlines; sometimes the performers were sideways on, so it was not possible to see signs or faces. This would have been problematic for audience members with BSL as  their first language.

This production was ideal for people like me; a CI user with musical knowledge and BSL second language. Or for people with a moderate hearing loss who still enjoy music. With closed captions, we could read the script, lipread, listen to the music, watch the dance and the bits of sign we could see. I suspect that if I’d come along with a Deaf friend who relied more upon BSL, they would be disappointed. So the production was accessible for some, not all deaf audiences, but access for deaf people is a complex issue for theatre-makers everywhere, and we won’t reach a solution overnight. Working with deaf performers and choreographer is certainly the way to go, and developing robust collaborative partnerships will do much in future to bring in deaf audiences. The Last Five Years was a new musical for me and, despite the glitches, very selfishly, I loved it!

The final date for The Last Five Years is at Theatr Soar, Merthyr Tydfil, 1 December.