Family secrets reveal and recoil in Jenny Sealey’s deeply ephemeral and personal piece Self-Raising. Tracing her upbringing as a young Deaf person made to conform to a Hearing World, Sealey delivers an utterly captivating and commanding performance that straddles the line between family drama, autobiography, and a performative exploration of accessibility and how society can disable people. At its core, the piece looks to unwind the secrets that defined Sealey’s secretive family life up to her Mother’s passing, and in doing so completely envelopes the audience in her story.
Jenny begins by distributing sacks of self-raising flour that she has named around the audience – our ‘Flour Babies’. Explaining that she had originally planned to adapt Anne Fine’s novel of the same name into a theatrical piece, she soon found herself relating all of it back to her own story growing up in Nottingham. Through heartfelt and sentimental monologue, we are introduced to the people who have shaped Jenny’s life – her parents, and their photography studio on Mansfield Road, soon her son Jonah, who has captioned the piece and created a series of multimedia elements which are transposed against the back of the stage.
In the centre of the stage stand three lightboxes on wheels, that soon double as kitchen cupboards, and as a space of play for Sealey to unlock the secrets of her, and her family’s, complicated past. She explains how deaf people often find themselves doing the washing up at family gatherings, as many in their family do not sign. Taking a hands-on approach, Sealey utilises the audience to demonstrate that it is difficult for her to lipread in an environment when she is surrounded. These are pertinent moments that are emotively driven into each member of the audience with a powerful sense of calm. Sealey weaves these exploratory moments surrounding themes of accessibility in between her own coming-to-be in the hearing world, and how she has had to conform and rebel. It’s experiential, and beautifully orchestrated to engross you in Jenny’s life story.
Photography, and photographs, are an ephemeral and sensitive device that Jenny leans on repeatedly to explore her family’s secrets (no, I’m not going to ruin them for you here). It feels at times like we are delving into a scrapbook of Jenny’s life, as she kneels on the ground sorting through photos and taking time to detail the impact that the people in them had on her life, and the things that they held back from telling her and those around her when she was growing up. Jonah’s work synthesises beautifully with these moments, delivering a sentimental relay between the two mediums of performance and film, as well as creative captioning. It seamlessly blends the story into a three-dimensional world that uncovers the environment Jenny grew up in, things that were said and not said to protect her and her siblings, as well as the complex personalities of her parents.
The analogy of the flour babies soon comes to fruition as Jenny regularly checks back in on the children she has fostered around the room. In a cathartic, revelatory end moment flour dusts the stage in a sandy glaze. The pure sensory joy of this show allows us to engage with its’ deeply personal sentimentality without ever feeling like an outsider in Jenny’s story. Photographs, flour, dishes, all become ephemeral traces of a life that has constantly flitted between the margins. Sealey kneads all of it together through her calm yet dynamic central performance.
The piece does suffer a little in its’ narrative on the basis that it is so linearly-defined, being that it follows Jenny’s life up until now. It feels that a piece with such an ephemeral and sensory touch could do more to toy with its’ structure to see the secrets unveiled in a more stark manner. This is light criticism – because I deeply enjoyed the mediums of storytelling that Graeae chose in bringing this complex story-world to life. Unfortunately on the day that I saw the show one of the light boxes wasn’t working, but Jenny took this in her stride and it didn’t feel that it truly mattered for a second.
Interpreted throughout in BSL, and with captions and audio descriptions of what’s occurring on stage, the piece is widely accessible. An accessibility table outside the performance is also there to help provide for anyone’s accessibility needs. The whole thing is done with such a sense of patience and care, and it is a truly wonderful, supportive theatrical environment.
Powerful, sentimental, ephemeral, and fleeting. Self-Raising offers a beautiful glimpse into a life of conforming, overcoming and unravelling.
Recommended Drink: A glass of red wine feels most fitting following the story along!
Catch Self-Raising at Pleasance Dome – QueenDome until August 27th (not the 7th, 14th, or 21st). Tickets are available through the EdFringe Box Office.