Edinburgh Fringe 2023
Jenny Sealey is the award-winning Artistic Director of disabled-led theatre company, Graeae. She has spent a lifetime championing stories by Deaf and disabled artists. Growing up Deaf in a family with a secret, concealed from both her and her siblings, shaped Jenny’s childhood. Discovering the truth a few years ago sent her into a spin as she realised that her life could have been so very different. now she shares her story with an audience in this play.
What do you think about families keeping secrets? Jenny is not sure if you should break the silence or not but her son Jonah is of the ‘let it all out in the open’ philosophy. This dilemma is at the heart of Graeae’s latest production premiering here at Edinburgh Fringe. Self-Raising is Jenny Sealey’s life story (to date she firmly tells us – there is more to come) and performed by Sealey herself. “Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up” says Jenny at one point, and she’s right – as so often truth is much more dramatic than fiction. Jonah is happier behind the camera so makes an appearance in still images and cheeky voice overs. Between them they explore the relationship of Bob and Pat, Sealey’s Mum and Dad. They evoke a glamorous and adventurous woman and a warm hearted man with equal love of family and his passion, photography. There are character sketches too of young Jenny, her siblings and family friends.
The set (Anisha Fields with lighting by Emma Chapman) cleverly references both Bob and Pat’s domains – dark room and kitchen. Given Bob’s profession and love of capturing his family on film the use of projection to share key photographs from the Sealey family archive is really effective at building the story. Practically, it includes audience members whose experience will be enhanced by visual cues. Each image slowly comes into focus as though in Bob’s developing trays.
This a wry comedy, with a light touch on potentially traumatising issues but spending time exploring others. It isn’t a misery memoir though. It could be a show about the lows and highs of growing up Deaf in a hearing family, which it does touch on, but after casting a steely eye on some deeply unpleasant behaviour by so-called professionals it turns to the drama of having your own identify upended as an adult, as so often happens to us at the death of a parent.
This is theatre and a story beautifully told through. However along the way we do learn some sign (through the performance interpreter), and how ongoing exclusion means many Deaf children bring themselves into adulthood – hence the title of the play. It is also a reference to the book Flour Babies (by Anne Fine) a childhood favourite of Sealey’s because one of the characters is a photographer. It was only after her father’s death and the reveal of not one but two of whopping family secrets that the book became even more pertinent to her life. She tries to adapt it for the stage but her own life experiences clamour for space.
As you might expect from a play co-written by Sealey and Mike Kenny (The Last Freak Show, Whiter than Snow) the production is excellent at integrated access incorporating audio description of appearance, costume and set, BSL and captioning. Four different performance interpreters work during the run – Jeni Draper, Ali Gordon, Jude Mahon, Caroline Richardson. Graeae are the leaders in the field in the UK, if not globally – one of Sealey’s many hats is as artistic co-creator of paralympic opening/closing ceremonies. The result is an inclusive, engaging and through provoking performance about family dynamics, something which most of us have personal experience of.
Please be aware that the play incudes potentially distressing themes including a reference to abuse, and the challenging treatment received by Deaf children. There is also some strong language and some very mild audience participation which you can opt out of.