Semiotic Theatre Company brings BSL into mainstream Theatre: ‘The Last Leaf’ review

Carlisle based Theatre Company; Semiotic held a successful production of their drama show; ‘The Last Leaf’ at the Carlisle Fringe Festival on 28th August.

I was fortunate to receive an invite to watch their show, but as it was short notice, I couldn’t attend. I contacted my friend Thomas Rhodes who plays for Carlisle City Deaf Football Club, he took my place and watched the show! Together, we’ve written this review – so thank you Thomas for your involvement.

Making their shows accessible

The Theatre company ‘aims to put British Sign Language (BSL) into mainstream Theatre’ with an ‘aspiration to bring together the D/deaf community and Hearing world through a mutual love of magic, storytelling and theatrical adventure’.

It’s fantastic when a company makes their shows accessible to their D/deaf and hard of hearing audiences, especially when there’s a lack of inclusion in mainstream Theatre in general.

‘The Last Leaf’

The show is described as ‘an emotive, intimate and memorable story about an artist’s struggle with pneumonia, based on a story by O. Henry and with the incorporation of BSL, the show explores the meaning of hope and the importance of art as a form of expression and language.’

‘The story was about a girl known as Jo, who suffers from pneumonia and was counting how many leaves have fallen down from an ivy tree,  believing that it is her fate that when the last leaf falls, she will die. The other lead performer, Sue always encouraged her to hope that was not the case. An older artist and Doctor were also involved throughout the performance with musical accompaniment in the background.’

A review from Thomas Rhodes

‘‘The Last Leaf’ was more than a story. It carried a strong message with excellent and powerful performances featuring well-choreographed dancing and movement and carefully composed music.

Their purpose was to raise deaf awareness by including elements in their performance to make it accessible. One way was by using a digital screen, where they displayed subtitles with what the performers were saying.

The cast also performed using some BSL in their script, whilst they danced and acted. It was well written and passionately acted. Their skills and awareness was impressive and for anyone who’s struggling to hear, or has a form of deafness could understand the whole story from the start till the end because of the extra accessibility.

They were creative in their approach without being overstated and the show was very different to other similar shows that I have been to. The actors’ speech were clear, they always faced the audience and the background music was well balanced out. It wasn’t too loud but equally wasn’t too quiet; complimenting the words from the actors.

However, like anything there were some things that could be improved, for example; the location. The festival was held in a tent in the centre of Carlisle, which due to thin fabric, wasn’t too helpful for me to fully hear the music and the speech from the actors at times as I could hear background noises outside of the tent. If the location was in a quieter area, then it would be better for deaf people like myself to be able to understand the speech better.

It was a fantastic idea to include a screen with subtitles alongside the play, so we could follow along and read what they were saying. This also benefits hearing people too as if they missed a bit, the screen was there to clarify sentences for them.

Although, the problem was that most of the time, the actors were stood in front of the screen without realising they were blocking our view. Perhaps the screen could’ve been slightly higher than the stage or placed to one side, and encouraging those who use the screen to sit that side.

Not all of the play was signed, so for BSL users, a BSL interpreter could be involved to sign the non-signed bits, but they would have detracted from the play. It was genuinely exciting to see the actors signing their own parts as well as remembering speech lines – not easy, but the group deserve praise for doing this and considering how to do this!

All in all, it was an excellent and thought-provoking play, made accessible to the deaf community – plus, the reinforcement of words on the screen takes away a huge amount of stress in attempting to catch what has been said.’

‘The Last Leaf by Semiotic is a play well worth seeing!’

Thank you Thomas for the review, and if anyone is in the Carlisle area, check out Semiotic’s future plays!