How Leeds Playhouse production of Oliver Twist is putting deaf and disabled actors centre-stage

The cast of Oliver Twist in rehearsal at Leeds Playhouse.
The cast of Oliver Twist in rehearsal at Leeds Playhouse.
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Director Amy Leach is helming a Ramps on the Moon production of Oliver Twist at Leeds Playhouse. Nick Ahad reports.

Actor Katie Erich is dragging herself across a wooden floor. As she pulls herself along, desperately, she says: “Please, my beautiful baby boy. Live!”

Caroline Parker in rehearsals for Oliver Twist at Leeds Playhouse.

Caroline Parker in rehearsals for Oliver Twist at Leeds Playhouse.

As she says the words, she signs them using British Sign Language. The effect of the words combined with the signing is as powerful a punch to the gut as I’ve ever experienced in theatre and I find myself fighting to keep my professional composure. It wouldn’t do to cry in front of the actors in the Barber Studio, for that is where Erich is dragging herself across the floor.

I’m in the rehearsal room on the ground floor of Leeds Playhouse, which is why Erich is wearing kneepads as she pulls herself around the floor – presumably they won’t be part of the costume once she’s on stage. Behind her an assortment of actors stand behind the bars of the gates of a Victorian workhouse.

They are rehearsing a new version of Oliver Twist from the towering playwright Bryony Lavery, which opens at the theatre at the end of the month before heading out on a national tour that takes in Sheffield Crucible and Nottingham Playhouse.

As I arrive, director Amy Leach has the cast in a circle and introduces me to the room, saying and signing that I am there to watch for the afternoon for an article in The Yorkshire Post.

Director Amy Leach in rehearsals for Oliver Twist at Leeds Playhouse.

Director Amy Leach in rehearsals for Oliver Twist at Leeds Playhouse.

The work begins and, truly, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a rehearsal room as full of laughter and joy.

Leach is a quite extraordinary director. Her productions at Leeds Playhouse in recent years of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, A Christmas Carol and plenty of others, will live long in the memory of those who saw them. She has a thrilling eye for detail and can paint stage pictures on an enormous scale. She is a special director with such a clear eye that you wonder if she is something of a dictator when creating her work. Such clarity of production must require a will of steel in the crucible of creation?

Nothing could be further from that expectation. Honestly, the laughter that permeates the room is constant; it’s like a meeting of friends as much a place of work and the one often laughing the loudest is Leach.

She also runs a seriously democratic room – suggestions of lots of different ways of staging a particularly tricky scene come from the actors, from assistants in the room, from stage managers; as a leader, Leach has that rare quality of having the confidence to give everyone with whom she works the opportunity to have a voice. It’s an important quality in all rehearsal rooms, but in this one in particular it is empowering.

This Oliver Twist carries extra significance because it is the 2020 Ramps on the Moon production. A consortium of seven major theatre companies from around the country, including Leeds Playhouse, Sheffield Theatres and Birmingham Rep, Ramps on the Moon is an Arts Council funded project which aims to put deaf and disabled artists and audiences at the centre of theatre work.

The project launched in 2014 with the highly successful production of The Threepenny Opera and aimed to correct the woeful lack of representation of disabled people in ‘mainstream’ theatre. The productions integrate disabled and non-disabled performers and practitioners and is a necessary and simple way to tackle a clear issue of disparity.

In Leach’s rehearsal room this means a large screen on stage facing the actors, displaying the script. It means there is audio description and BSL integrated into the action on stage and it means an intensely collaborative process.

Adam Bassett is the creative assistant director. He is profoundly deaf and Leach works with him constantly to check if the sign language on stage makes sense with the action.

There is a chair next to Leach occupied on rotation by three different sign language interpreters: one of them explains that BSL interpreters have a concentration threshold of around 20 minutes. After that it becomes too mentally exhausting and one of the other three are tagged in. BSL interpreter Number One says: “The idea is that we just go off and rest after a stint, but I can’t stop watching, I’m just too involved and fascinated by it.”

I know how she feels.

A day later I catch up with Leach.

The first thing I want to know is how come she is able to sign? She’s not deaf and as far as I know, it’s something she has only started to use regularly in the last couple of years.

It turns out she did a course while she was at Durham University, but it is within the last few years that she’s started to take it up again more seriously, attending weekly classes in an attempt to truly integrate the skill into her practice. Like I say, she’s an impressive director.

She’s opening up the rehearsal room to as many people as possible, particularly young directors at the start of their careers.

“It’s about planting that seed that there’s nothing to be scared of when it comes to working with integrated disabled and non-disabled casts. You see the directors come in, they spend half an hour with us and they go ‘oh right, it’s not that hard’,” says Leach.

I’d say far from being difficult, having this integrated disabled-non-disabled cast, with all the extra layers that provides, is a hugely important addition to this production.

As witnessed with Katie Erich, not only does the signing not get in the way, it adds enormously to the power of what looks like an extraordinary production.

Version ‘true to Dickens’ dark vision’

Amy Leach is at pains to point out that Bryony Lavery’s version of Charles Dickens’ famous story is “definitely not the musical, so don’t come expecting that”.

She says: “It’s much truer to the original Dickens, it’s dark and brutal and a really interesting examination of poverty and it’s also full of these extraordinary characters.”

Oliver Twist opens at Leeds Playhouse February 28 to March 21. Tickets 0113 2137700 or leedsplayhouse.org.uk.

It then tours nationally, including to Sheffield Crucible May 13-23, 0114 2496000. sheffieldtheatres.co.uk