Reviewed by Julie Huffer

Do you have a housemate who won’t tidy their room, a sibling you are always arguing with or a family member who delights in striving for one-upmanship? 

Perhaps you’re waiting for the kids to finally leave home, have watched them struggle with illicit drugs or girlfriends with below par IQs. If so, you’ll readily identify with the discussions that unfold during Nina Raine’s highly entertaining play, Tribes.

Tribes is a play about language, about the way we communicate and about belonging to a group.

In this case, it’s essentially the immediate family, which is challenged when an outsider tries to join it, but the writer also refers to a variety of societal groups we can align ourselves with.

The plot centres on Billy (Luke Watts). He is deaf from birth, but raised by his hearing family as if he were not disabled. They don’t want him marginalised. He lip reads, but misses some of the nuances of conversation and rarely comes out on top when competing for attention with his siblings. His brother Daniel (Garth Holcombe) is writing a thesis, hopes to follow his father into academia but is yet to become confident in his own skin. Experimenting with drugs doesn’t help. Sister Ruth (Amber McMahon) has unfulfilled ambitions to become an opera singer and spends a good deal of time bickering with Daniel. Mum (Genevieve Lemon), meanwhile, is trying in middle-age to write a novel that is part crime, part dysfunctional family. And dad (Sean O’Shea), who revels in political incorrectness, teaches literature.

As they all meet for meals and cups of tea, their dialogue shifts from the philosophical to the domestic, with an assured sense of realism. When Billy’s new love Sylvia (Ana Maria Belo) enters the scene, they are forced to confront their prejudices and stereotyping.

Sylvia, who is progressively going deaf, starts teaching Billy sign language and this alters the family dynamics. Suddenly the way in which they communicate is brought to the fore, and identities and relationships questioned.

By the end of Act One, Tribes is shaping up to be a riveting experience.

In 2012, it won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and Off Broadway Alliance Award for Best Play. 

It’s peppered with astute one-liners that made me laugh out loud.

The lighting, sound and direction (Susanna Dowling and Janine Watson) ensure there’s never a dull moment. And, as expected, the cast in this Ensemble Theatre production is really terrific.

It’s a pity then that Act Two is over before it’s fully developed. The playwright finishes the work abruptly with an odd character twist and twee ending leaving me feeling there was more to see and hear from this tribe. 

A small gripe, perhaps, in a very engaging exploration of the issues of belonging and integration. 


WHAT: Tribes

WHERE: Ensemble Theatre

WHEN: Until July 2

HOW MUCH: $32-$69  

BOOKINGS: 9929 0644


Photos from Ensemble Theatre Official Facebook