REVIEW: Read My Lips (Basement Theatre)

Review by Irene Corbett

[These Lips are Smiling]

Embers Collective have produced a wonderful second original work in Read My Lips, a devised piece which draws from stories from Auckland’s Deaf community. 

Read My Lips is the bubble of laughter from best friends performing dance choreography together in the living room, it is the bowed head and slumped shoulders of sadness, it is the idiosyncrasies of human communication, and, most importantly, it is the joy of play. The show has a childlike joy, a youthful exuberance in storytelling through the body and the voice that I wish was the starting point for more theatre. 

The audience is gifted a story of three best friends, one of whom, Val (Monari Falepeau), becomes deaf and learns sign language to communicate. Val’s friends Leane (Shelley Waddams) and Eden (Ashleigh Hook) also learn sign language to varying levels of fluency with a running joke made of Eden’s need to ask people to repeat themselves and Leane’s inability to fingerspell. All three actresses sign in New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) throughout the show, though the characters of Leane and Eden as hearing characters also speak in English. 

The show opens with the three girls vigorously dancing a short piece of choreography that neatly situates the audience in a very physical territory. As the characters are introduced we begin to learn about their friendship, Val’s illness which led to deafness, and the challenges of being deaf in a hearing world. The cast make use of an over-head projector to tell portions of this tale with three figures cut out of transparencies standing in for the girls. Through this  we traverse large tracts of time without either spoken or signed language. Initially the projector use is really just a puppet show but later we see more evocative uses including a moment in which Falepeau stands in the field of projection and, as images of signs are cast over her body, a striking representation of immersing oneself in a new language is produced. 

The story is episodic in nature, in the way many devised works often are, jumping from conversations about the Spice Girls to a ‘Guess the sign’ gameshow complete with theme song and ninja like posturing and back to a cut out hospital on the overhead projector. We visit a Deaf club a couple of times and Val tries to order a burger at a fast-food restaurant. There is even a segment on ‘What not to ask deaf people’ which involves a few stupid questions and a large amount of paint.

Waddam’s Leane is fast and firey, Hook’s Eden provides most of the comedy (I envy her seemingly elastic face), while Falepeau as Val is the heart of the show. Very present, always watching, her mastery of NZSL to my (albeit uncomprehending) eyes was eloquent and expressive. I am thankful that the cast do not always translate or gloss everything Val signs but have allowed space and time for the character to communicate to her audience without interruption.

Amongst the entertainment there are moments of didacticism. Leane is concerned about the locks on the front door as Val is unable to know if someone has entered the house. There is a discussion of the dangers of walking home at night in the dark, though Eden is of the opinion this is dangerous for any of her friends, hearing or deaf. The episode at the fast-food joint highlights the difficulties of communicating with a wider community who haven’t learnt sign language, and, in a Mr Bean worthy struggle with moving a table, we realise the problem of becoming inarticulate as soon as you are carrying something.  

This could have been all too educational but the cast avoid being preachy through their heartfelt delivery and the deeply rooted sense that this is their story.

A lone bitter note in this story rings out when we are told in an offhand remark that Val’s dad never learned to sign, and, though this is never discussed, the implications of this information colours the remainder of the show for me. Perhaps a sequel exploring this is on the cards? 

Occasionally the jokes are drawn out a bit too long, and there are a couple of on-the-nose references to the show’s runtime, but the only real blight is the venue sightlines. The Basement’s studio is great for the intimacy and informality the space provide a cast and audience but not good for trying to watch actors’ hands if you are seated further back than the front two rows. 

That said, not once during this show did I struggle to follow what was being communicated to me. As a hearing person with limited knowledge of NZSL I can only speak to one level of appreciation for this performance but I trust that the beauty of the show being devised in both NZSL and spoken English is that it is enjoyably for all audiences.

I keep asking myself why on earth we don’t have more shows produced like this. Read My Lips, beyond representation, makes a possibly inaccessible theatre experience accessible to the Deaf and hearing impaired communities. In addition, for a hearing audience member the use of sign language actually enhances the experience beyond just contextualising it. From a drama perspective, it is a win as the actors are bodily engaged in the language they are producing. There is a delight in expressiveness and movement, and simply no room for insincerity or that classic ‘bad’ acting where the words aren’t lining up with the eyes or shoulders. From a perspective focussed on inclusivity it is a no brainer. One can only assume that the usual culprits of time and funding are stopping more works of this kind being created and performed, perhaps with a large dose of uncertainty around audience reception. 

Read My Lips is the first show I have seen which has been devised in both spoken English and NZSL. It is a fantastic, dynamic, one hour bundle of joy and aroha. I really hope it is not the last show like this I get to see. 

Read My Lips plays Basement Theatre 16th – 27th July.

Devised by: Ashleigh Hook, Shelley Waddams, Monari Falepeau and Georgia Hoskins-Smith.
Produced by: Georgia Hoskins-Smith.
Lighting design: Michael Goodwin.
Operator: Jane Son.

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