Preview: Speechless

Director Polly Teale tells Richard Smirke about new play Speechless, which tells the story of the Gibbons twins

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The real-life story of June and Jennifer Gibbons – the so-called Silent Twins – made headlines around the world. The youngest children of Barbados-born Gloria and Aubrey Gibbons, the sisters grew up on an RAF base in Wales in the 1960s and 1970s where they experienced severe bullying and racial discrimination from a young age as a speech impairment meant they could only communicate with their immediate family.

Retreating into self-imposed exile, the identical twins devised their own language, would speak only to each other and locked themselves in their bedroom, prolifically writing diaries, poems and elaborate crime-themed novels. Frustrated at their spurned literary ambitions, June and Jennifer embarked on a teenage petty crime spree for which they were sentenced to 11 years in Broadmoor secure psychiatric hospital. Less than 24 hours after their joint release in March 1993 Jennifer, the younger sister by ten minutes, died of an unspecified medical condition. The exact cause of her death remains unknown.

“It’s such a fascinatingly complex relationship,” says Polly Teale, director of Speechless, an award-winning play that explores the Gibbons’ inner world.

“It was a very suffocating, co-dependent relationship between the twins with real extremes of love and hate. The bond between them and their silence gave them a kind of power and a feeling of safety in the way that their relationship was a kind of refuge. But in other ways it was like a prison.”

Produced by Oxford-based theatre company Shared Experience and inspired by Marjorie Wallace’s best-selling book The Silent Twins, Speechless premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, where it won a Fringe First award, and now heads out on its first UK tour. Teale hopes that the play, which stars Natasha Gordon and Demi Oyediran as Jennifer and June and Anita Reynolds as their anguished mother, will grant audiences a deeper understanding of the sisters’ troubled existence.

“The danger with this story is that there is something of the freak show about it,” explains the director, who has long harboured ambitions of telling the Gibbons’ family saga onstage.

“There is something weirdly fascinating about the idea of these identical twins who didn’t speak and were then sent to prison for committing arson. It has a slightly voyeuristic feel and I would hope that when people come and see the production that they leave it with more insight and empathy for the twins.”

To achieve that aim, Linda Brogan’s powerful, evocative script (co-written with Teale) focuses on key moments in June and Jennifer’s adolescence, including the sisters’ often violent confrontations with each other, their romantic desires and their eerie habit of moving in silent slow-motion unison. As in real life, the siblings’ intense creativity sits at the heart of the production, providing an emotional and dramatic outlet for their anger, fear and dreams of future happiness. “I think that is one the things that makes the story so fascinating and also so very sad,” reflects Teale.

“That these two young girls who were so full of hope, aspiration, imagination and ambition, and wanted to become novelists could have ended up in Broadmoor committed for violent crime really feels like a modern tragedy and such a shocking waste of their real potential.”

Despite the unique and extraordinary aspects of the twins’ lives, the themes the play explores – loneliness, social exclusion, jealousy, love and, at times, crippling shyness – have a deep universal resonance.

“It’s a basic human need to feel that you have a voice and some kind of status within society and if you don’t then the repercussions of that can be very dangerous,” she says. “The twins’ experience is, in a way, a very extreme version of what a lot of us go through.

“For whatever reason you sometimes feel like an outsider and you feel like you don’t belong, which is in all of us.”

Speechless, 22-26 Nov, The Lowry, Salford

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