Fringe 2009, BATS Theatre
February 14-18 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

Words Apart is a simple and sweet show, combining spoken English with New Zealand Sign Language. It loosely draws on Romeo and Juliet for its plot, with a slight twist – Ryan (Romeo) is deaf and Jules (Juliet) is hearing. Their fledging relationship faces prejudice from both of their families – interestingly comprised on both sides of siblings raising their bother/sister due to absent parents. As the programme notes, Ryan and Jules face a battle of proving that their love can overcome the language barrier between them – that it is ‘more than just words’.

It’s a charming premise, but the show lacks punch in practice due to a general failure to create or sustain any tension. Sophia Scully Elizabeth as ‘Mac’ the over-protective older sister of Ryan (Jared Flitcroft) is the first to cast aspersions on the relationship – and from there it all feels a little predictable – perhaps because they are utilising one of the best known stories in the English canon. The relationship between Jules (Ivana Palezvic) and her brother, Ty (Isaac Heron, who also plays Ryan’s friend Ben) is more fraught and complicated. Ty faces his own language difficulties as he can’t read or write well. Heron brings an excellent degree of pent up anger to his role, but ultimately there is little complexity or development.

Interestingly for a show in which one of the languages used is not spoken aloud, there is a lot of exposition of the plot. Perhaps this is unsurprising given that the ‘hearing’ characters often have to explain the Sign Language. Although I can see the necessity of this, it does reduce the theatricality of the show, I don’t think the synthesis of Sign Language and English has reached the point this show is aiming for.

The staging is fairly simple, with black blocks moved around to constitute Mac’s café, Jules and Ty’s home and various other locations. Jules and Ryan also angrily stack them to indicate the wall building up between them. They manage to break through this wall in the moment where both seem to realise they don’t need to explain their feelings with words.

The play concludes abruptly and happily, in an ending that startles due to the lack of resolution leading up to it. I did find myself wondering what would have been interesting about this play if one of the characters had not been deaf, and whether this in turn served to somehow reinforce a sense of difference to ‘otherness’. However, the deaf members of the audience seemed to recognise a lot of the prejudice and difficulty they face from the ‘hearing’ community and appreciate seeing work that was in their language.