Review by Harry Bower
When Jenny Sealey started adapting the book Flour Babies by Anne Fine for the stage, she found herself coming back time and time again to her own story. The parallels in the narrative were clear, she tells us. At the start of her one-hour play about Sealey’s own life and the family secrets which have shaped it, she stands alone with her ‘terp’ – a friend signing for the audience. Together they provide plentiful context for why we’re all sat in Soho Theatre’s main space waiting for her performance with anticipation. What follows is a cute and gentle, but sometimes challenging and uncomfortable tale of personal resilience.
The stage set is simple in form, mirroring the performance itself; three solitary kitchen units sit with a sink, and a projector screen hangs overhead, used as a live-caption device. Sealey moves with purpose around the space, utilising cupboard doors both metaphorically and literally, to reveal props and, curiously, many bags of flour. As she names the bags – Ian, Vickie, Susan – she hands them to the audience. With some audio description, more context, and the ice well and truly broken, she begins to tell her story.
That story is one of growing up deaf in a hearing world; of ambivalence, of discrimination, of shocking but sadly unsurprising societal attitudes to deafness. As the story meanders through the years and we learn more about Sealey’s life, the plentiful metaphor and subtle storytelling mechanics begin to click into gear. The audience is somewhat lulled into a false sense of security with pictures of baby siblings narrated by Sealey’s own son with a confident cheeky-chappy voiceover. That means, when the twists arrive, they have genuine emotional weight and impact. Sealey makes us care deeply about her as a young person by being completely honest but maintaining a sense of privacy about her experiences. It makes the moments she chooses to share with us even more significant. It almost feels like watching a piece of live-therapy.
Her performance itself is put well put together, never leaving her overexposed and always feeling measured and in control. With numerous accessibility features in the show there is a partial responsibility to ensure both the captions and interpreter can keep up with the pace of delivery. Only the caption screen struggles occasionally in the more frenetic moments, but Sealey’s performance is otherwise brilliant. She owns her surroundings and has a grounded stage presence, important given some of the subject matter. There is a cheeky and understated comic timing embedded in her core acting skill, she injects laugh out loud moments into the piece throughout and every single one lands.
If the play is a little rough around the edges then it’s in an entirely appropriate way; life is messy and unfinished. Framing Sealey’s tale around the Flour Babies book and the abstract notion of secrecy for large parts makes little sense, but as the piece reaches its conclusion all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Self Raising is a wonderful example of how you can present your own life story in a deeply personal and sensitive but also hugely entertaining way. It is an hour spent laughing, smiling and feeling nostalgic, with honesty at its core.
Self Raising plays at Soho Theatre until Saturday 17 February 2024. For more information and tickets visit https://sohotheatre.com/events/self-raising/