Words are barely adequate to describe the sensitivity and intensity of Shared Experience’s 2010 First Fringe winner, Speechless. It is the story of identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons whose father is an air traffic controller at an RAF base in Wales. It is 1981 and June and Jennifer, as black children in a tiny all-white community, feel rejected by the hostile world around them. As the Brixton riots blaze on British TV screens, June and Jennifer begin a rebellion of their own by refusing to communicate with anyone except each other. Slowly they withdraw from family, friends and teachers until their shared anger drives them to commit a terrible crime.
Linda Brogan and Polly Teale have done a wonderful job of adapting Marjorie Wallace’s novel, ‘The Silent Twins’, for the stage. The performance is fast-paced, funny and deeply tragic. Naomi Dawson’s minimal set is used superbly. The bunk bed, the nexus of June and Jennifer’s ‘twin-dom’, is used in one scene as a broken window. The twins crawl and climb through the stripped metal structure, demonstrating total control over their use of the space and transforming the audience perception of that space simply by the way they behave in it.
Naomi Dawson’s grim, peeling, slime-coloured set was more reminiscent of a squat than the home of an RAF officer or a school, but it was evocative of the sense of oppression surrounding the twins and those close to them. Jennifer’s insistent, pleading, wrathful refrain to June – ‘you are me, you are Jennifer!’ – illustrates the suffocating nature of their co-dependency. It is if they have wrapped the umbilical cord around one another’s necks so neither can pull away.
Liz Ranken’s movement direction lends an eerie feel to the twins’ behaviour from the outset that illustrates their relationship through mirrored gestures and long moments of intense eye-contact. Natasha Gordon and Demi Oyediran have an incredibly believable dynamic as Jennifer and June; their intimacy and frustration is played out in tense, muscular struggles and almost erotic displays of affection. Gordon and Oyediran use their physicality to represent the conflict between the need for individual identity and fear of losing security they feel in oneness. The shared sexual encounter with Kennedy, the bad boy next door, is a climactic moment in the spiralling perversity of their relationship. The moment is relieved, however, by laughter. Jennifer and June’s private communion is intersected by another, more public one. It is Charles and Diana’s wedding. Mrs Gibbons provides an absurd running commentary on pearl sequins and the length of Diana’s train while her daughters are sexually manipulated stage left. The juxtaposition of a mother’s naïve patriotism and her daughters’ seedy, incestuous encounter was both disurbing and hilarious. A family walked out.
Anita Reynolds played the line between ridiculous colonial-panto-dame and deeply sympathetic mother flawlessly. The scene in which she begs the twins to join the family for Christmas is truly heart-breaking. Reynolds masterfully strips away the bombast to reveal a very lonely, desperate and frightened woman hidden beneath. The same cannot be said of Alex Robertson, who came across as a man in his mid-thirties doing a clichéd Kevin and Perry-style impression of an angsty, pseudo-political teenage boy on a BMX. Kennedy, as a character, is two-dimensional at best and preposterous at worst; a frustrating element that disrupts the sanctity of the twins’ isolation and fractures the exquisite tension set up between them. Whether the fault of writer or performer, Kennedy was a weak link and his unconvincing characterisation impacted on the whole performance.
Despite this, the energy of Oyediran and Gordon’s every movement is hypnotic; their transformations from brooding, sphinx-like outsiders to playtime patriots, fascinating; and their story of personal tragedy set within the wider context of British imperialism is profoundly moving. A mesmerising piece that speaks for the generations of colonial immigrants denied a voice.
The Lowry, Manchester, 23/11/2011
Watch the trailer for Speechless here