The importance of friendship and the power of communication connect in one joyous, celebratory – and noisy – whole in this vibrant and surprising new version of family favourite Stig of the Dump.
And connection is at the heart of the fantastical tale surrounding a boy and a caveman which has captivated generations of children. Barney and Stig may come from very different backgrounds – and different moments in time – but they find common ground in imaginative and unique fashion. Spoken word is blended with sign language, visual vernacular, physical theatre, mime, music and percussion (played by a live ‘junk yard’ band) to create a style of playful and exuberant storytelling which is immediately accessible to everyone be they three or 103. We human beings are naturally sociable animals and our desire for that connection begins at birth. Babies who are not yet able to express themselves through speech quickly learn to read body language as well as tone of voice and, in turn, find their own ways to be understood. From baby sign language to Mr Tumble’s Makaton, youngsters often embrace non-verbal forms of communication before developing spoken language skills.
Barney, the young Deaf hero of our story, has learned – in writer Jessica Swale’s words – to be “an expert communicator” and discovers with delight that so too is the titular Stig. And as Jessica points out: “The lovely thing for us is it means the audience gets to learn Stig’s language alongside Barney’s. Barney doesn’t know any of Stig’s signs and symbols and has to learn them over the course of the play. So, we also get to understand ‘caveman’, which is joyful. It’s perhaps no surprise Stig is at home with signing. Communication via hand and facial gestures pr dates speech, which began to develop around 50,000 years ago. The spoken word soon became dominant and signing only started to be used as a ‘language’ again from the Middle Ages onwards, with the earliest existing accounts of signing in Britain dating from the end of the Tudor period.
Sign language was used in schools for the Deaf during the 1800s before falling out of favour for the best part of a century. British Sign Language, a description formalised in the 1970s, uses gestures, facial expressions and body language and has its own grammatical structure which, perhaps surprisingly, isn’t strongly related to spoken English. Other physical forms of communication include finger spelling, where each letter of the alphabet has its own distinct symbol, and Sign Supported English which uses signs common to British Sign Language (BSL) but in the same order as spoken English. Earlier this year the BSL Act – co-sponsored by MP Rosie Cooper who grew up with Deaf parents – received its Royal Assent, formally recognising BSL as a language of England, Scotland and Wales. of people use it as their preferred language including high-profile figures like actress Rose Ayling-Ellis whose expressive performances on the dancefloor won the hearts, and votes, of Strictly Come Dancing audiences – and prompted a surge of interest in signing.
Director Harry Jardine, says of Stig: “The deeper I dive into this incredible story, the more I feel like it was always meant to be performed in this way”.
Grosvenor Park producer Helen Redcliffe adds, “After producing Antigone earlier in the year which was fully BSL integrated we saw that there was something to explore within Stig around people not having a voice and being misunderstood. Stig is a story about two people finding friendship through an exciting and dynamic way of communicating.” Barney and Stig are certainly both celebrated through the production’s integration of vivid visual and verbal storytelling which seeks to break down those barriers, and which enhances its powerful message of love, friendship, hope and acceptance.
Words by Catherine Jones