Adam’s Apple part of LIFT festival review

Adam’s Apple part of LIFT festival review – words Gabriella Docherty

How does my voice communicate who I am?” As part of LIFT 2016, Adam’s Apple Choir, led by Canadian performer Tristan Whiston, playfully and sensitively explores this question through a newly crafted song cycle about personal identity, the performance of gender, and how our voices convey meaning beyond the words we speak.

A traditional Victorian Music Hall venue, Hoxton Hall has a history of providing a space for different art forms and styles to co-exist, collide, and occasionally mingle. It therefore seems appropriate that it should host a piece that has chosen a combination of humour, painful childhood confessions and catchy West End style show tunes as a means of feeling its way through places of internal doubt and contradiction.

 

From the beginning, the performance has a fantastically intimate feel to it; almost by way of disclaimer, we are greeted with an announcement that what we are about to witness is a work in progress, the result of a mere four days’ worth of rehearsals. As the performance gradually builds momentum, this information proves to be both startling – the script and the songs are delivered so confidently, the performers seem so closely tied to their characters – and revealing: the show still has the raw energy of a rehearsal, that spark in the air that tells us that anything could happen. That the quality of the performance itself oscillates between being bold and self-questioning only serves to enrich the themes being addressed. The scripts, which remain in the actors’ hands, are soon forgotten as the characters take shape in front of us.

It soon becomes clear that this is more than just a choir performing a set of thematically linked songs; the music forms an intrinsic part of a powerful and emotionally disarming script that draws on real-life interviews with transgender concerning their experiences of going through speech therapy. Written by playwright Alex Bulmer, the script itself is entitled ‘Hush?’ and is being performed at a variety of venues across the UK by various LGBT and community choirs throughout the summer. The name itself is intended to be reminiscent of a common thread among the experiences of many transgender individuals – the powerlessness of being silenced, and the fear of not being heard.

We meet Chris (played by Tristan Whiston), a speech and language therapist specialising in gender who is leading a series of group therapy sessions. During the course of an intense half hour, we witness their week-by-week progress as Chris attempts to guide them toward finding their own voice. Each of his patients (performed by Kate O’Donnell, Harrison Knights and Amelia Cavallo) has a distinct reason for being there: a cisgender woman is coming to terms with having always wanted to be a boy, a man is struggling with his gender identity and understanding of masculinity among memories of a fraught relationship with his father, and a woman sees her decades-long career in radio suffer after transitioning from male to female. They are united, however, by one thing – they are all trapped inside that universal squirm of discomfort a person feels upon hearing their own voice recorded and played back to them: “is that what I sound like?”

Simply through the pitch, speed and tone with which we speak, we are constantly communicating a vast array of information. Age and nationality, gender and social status, competence and approachability are all projected by the sounds our words make. And while physical appearance can be modified with clothing and make up (or hormones and medical procedures), our voices come from deep within us and take a great deal of awareness and effort to modify.  For these characters, re-evaluating their gender brings these unconscious cues to the forefront, causing them to question everything about themselves. Becoming hyper aware of the new ‘performance’ they are having to adopt, they are paralysed, afraid to speak at all.  It takes, we are told, 115 cycles per minute for a voice to register as female. But as the sessions progress, they realise they are concerned with more than simply ‘registering’ as male or female; they also want to sound like themselves. Together, the characters tread a fine line between learning a new gender identity and keeping hold of their own personal sense of self. Does identifying as a woman mean that you have to sound ‘pretty’? Can you learn to embrace a voice you feel is at odds with who you are? It is in this space between a desire to conform to society’s expectations, and an equally powerful need to be true to a self that one is terrified of fully revealing, that this piece comes to life.

With an original score of upbeat songs, the piece is playful in tone throughout, but does not spare its audience emotionally. Far from muting the pain of the characters, the music is used to further explore their world; tense dialogue, punchy choruses, silences, one-liners and a startlingly intimate solo on behalf of the therapist himself weave in and out of one another, continuously taking the audience off guard. Even in the play’s most joyful moments, the pain previously addressed isn’t brushed aside, but feels all the more real. This is perhaps accentuated by the fact that the actors on stage are part of the LGBT community themselves, and have lived the material in a very real way. They are joined at the end by the Angels of Kaos, who lift the performance out of its raw, early state to something altogether more polished.

Our voices are arguably one of the most primal and personal things we share with the world. Coming from inside us, the sounds are made by vibrations in our vocal folds and are released alongside the air that we need to live. They are often unpredictable, betraying what we feel without our consent, or faltering against our will. Adam’s Apple Choir knowingly mirrors this by constantly taking us off guard. Part musical, part choir, part journal entry, this uplifting and intensely personal piece masterfully extracts a joyful vulnerability from each of the traditions it borrows from, in order to communicate a range of experiences that are both extremely personal and intensely relatable.

Adam’s Apple at Hoxton Hall was part of the Lift Festival taking palce throughout June

Adam’s Apple part of LIFT festival review – words Gabriella Docherty

 

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