You do not have the right to remain silent: Speechless at the Arcola

Having recently seen ‘Bronte’ by Shared Experience it is tempting to make parallels between the subjects of their latest production, ‘Speechless’, and the Bronte sisters.  Based on the book ‘The Silent Twins’ by Marjorie Wallace, ‘Speechless’ tells the story of June and Jennifer Gibbons, identical twins whose increasing isolation from the world went along with an obsession with writing which resulted in two novels.  The key difference being that ‘The Pepsi Cola Addict’ and ‘Discomania’ have not become part of our literary heritage in quite the same way as ‘Jane Eyre’ or ‘Wuthering Heights’ have done.

Written by Polly Teale and Linda Brogan, this play gives us a detailed and grimly fascinating taste of the twins’ lives as they go from childhood to young adulthood.  We see their mother’s apparent denial of the situation, the school’s attempts to help them break out of their pact of silence, before they are ‘mentored’ by the local delinquent whose own dysfunctional behaviour becomes the catalyst for their downfall.

As we have come to expect from Shared Experience, the production is uncompromising and powerful in its depiction of the twins’ story.  The five-strong cast are all excellent.  Natasha Gordon and Demi Oyediran as the twins move from young adult to child and back again with nothing more than a subtle change in posture or voice – school uniform skirts and vests serve equally well as institutional uniform, and almost all the props are contained in suitcases piled up around them.  They draw us into their world, their humour and self-awareness, as well as the bitter struggle to break free from each other.  The transformation between their childhood games and the physical ordeal they go through when they try to speak to strangers is truly agonising to watch. 

As Gloria, Anita Reynolds paints a convincing portrait of a mother trying to maintain the appearance of normality in the face of her daughter’s increasingly bizarre behaviour.  Whist there is humour in her attempts to tempt them downstairs with their favourite food or TV programmes, her inability to see the seriousness of the situation is disturbing in itself.  Katie Lightfoot as the therapist skilfully combines a sincere desire to help with growing frustration.  Alex Robertson perfectly captures the physicality of the adolescent, maladjusted male, hovering at the edge of the action but suggesting his predatory role even when he was rearranging the chairs.  The scene where he conducts an ‘alternative therapy’ session with the girls is as convincing as it is shocking.

Does this production of ‘Speechless’ do justice to its subject matter?  Ultimately the play told a fascinating story, but at 90 minutes it seemed to end rather abruptly, and some of the events have been compressed in such a way that they seem to lose their meaning.  There are some surprising omissions, in particular the lack of exploration of their time at Broadmoor, the shocking injustice of two young women being incarcerated for 11 years for a series of petty offences, and the events following their release.  We haven’t read Marjorie Wallace’s book, but it may be that due to her detailed research, there is so much more to draw on during the years up to 1986 that is too difficult to attempt to recreate subsequent events.  With so many unanswered questions this feels like one version of a story that could possibly have many different interpretations.

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