Vault Festival: Blow, A Deaf Girl’s Fight

Blow, a Deaf Girl's Fight. Photo from previous production.
Blow, a Deaf Girl’s Fight. Photo from previous production.

Where

Studio in The Vaults, Leake Street Tunnels, Waterloo.

When

25 Feb-1 Mar, 7.20pm.

Who

Written by Libby Welsh and Jack Silver, directed by Jack Silver and produced by Tramp. Performed by Libby Welsh, Sofia Greenacre, Kirsten Foster, Lizzie Aaryn-Stanton, Henry Davis, Charlie Quirke,Sally Collett, Natalie Spence and Eva Ditzelm├╝ller.

What

“A Deaf girl fights prejudice in a tough 1980s boxing gym. Blow challenges how we treat d/Deaf people on stage, screen, and in real life.”

How

Libby Welsh and Jack Silver have crafted a piece which runs at just 45 minutes, using a variety of techniques to make a number of points about ableist language and attitude.

The first section is the play as advertised, a deaf girl, Hannah (Welsh), joining a tough East End boxing gym for women. The OTT performances and difficult themes quickly descend into chaos and an actors’ revolt.

Part drama, part musical (a lively song and dance number and a rap which brings problems of race representation to the table), part immersive piece, part discussion, Blow is ambitious but still feels as if it is work in progress.

Welsh, a deaf performer playing a hearing actor playing a deaf character, explains the importance of the piece to her at its close after being told certain occupations were barred to her due to her disability – a pilot an actor, a dancer.

Casting actors with disabilities in shows should not be a problem these days: the RSC have welcomed actors who are deaf, visually impaired, and wheelchair users into their Shakespeares this year; the Globe cast an actor with limited mobility as the Porter in Macbeth; and currently in La Cage Aux Folles at the Park the role of Laurent is played by an actor who only has the use of one of his arms. None of these roles are written as able-bodied or disabled.

The company of Blow, a Deaf Girl's Fight
The company of Blow, a Deaf Girl’s Fight. Photo from previous production

However in the Donmar’s recent (and superb) Teenage Dick, a modern update of Richard III, the leading role being played by an actor with clear physical disabilities gave a whole new dimension to the story.

I’d like to see more of this kind of inclusive casting, although the more complex issue of invisible disability remains (Welsh’s own story, but also mental health issues which leads on to the question of disclosure).

Blow discusses the casting of able-bodied actors in roles as disabled characters, and in one sequence describes how such casting can become Oscar bait, translating into ‘best actor’ wins. It’s a thoughtful section – although perhaps would work better outside of the rap format.

There’s a token BAME performer playing “Tina – Japanese” in the first section (Kirsten Foster), notably with no lines, making another point about exclusion. There’s a brief discussion of racial stereotyping (“do I choose sex worker, or ninja”) and of black/yellowface, courting recent controversies in large shows both here and on Broadway.

There is a lot to take in here. Personally I preferred the discussion section, where the “actors in the play within the play” aired thoughts and concerns about we had just seen, to that opening segment which made its point then went on just that bit too long.

Judgement: Wow, Meow, or Furred Brow?

It’s a tough one. I admit to a bit of Furred Brow throughout part one, which has levels of (deliberate) cringe, but by the end Blow got a conservative Meow from me.

I’d like to see Welsh and Silver continue to develop this piece and really tease out the themes they wish to convey. At the moment the various sections don’t completely gel together but I was left thinking about the conundrum of how we speak (“crazy people”, “crippling debts”) as well as the issues around theatre representation.

Blow is largely well-performed by a cast of nine, plus a BSL interpreter. All bring an earnest energy to the piece and its message about ableism, but at times the audience patience is tested and there needs to be just a bit more fleshing out of the themes.

LouReviews received a complimentary ticket to see Blow.