Silence ~ Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell

A Love Story in Noisy Silence   

The fascinating story of love between Mabel Hubbard and her famous husband, Alexander Graham Bell, is now on stage at London’s Grand Theatre.  A charming tale, the play reveals the love between Bell and Mabel, his profoundly deaf student.  Bell, an elocution teacher, is hired by Mabel’s parents to help her with her speech.  Despite the 10 year age gap, they marry.

The play highlights Bell’s eccentricities while Mabel pushes the need to be practical.  For example, Bell invents the telephone, but it is Mabel and her father who ensure it is patented, and Mabel who forces her “Alec” to have his new invention featured at an exposition in Philadelphia. The audience sees how Mabel influences her husband’s success.

Because the show centres on Mabel, and she is an expert lip reader, we can only hear those talking to her when she is facing them.  At times, the stage is silent, when Mabel looks away from the person speaking to her. While their mouths continue to move, no sound is emitted.

The use of sound is compelling.  From the silence when Mabel looks away, to the roar of Niagara Falls projected on the wall behind them, the contrast is remarkable.  Most notable is the jarring cacophony of telephones ringing.

Tara Rosling is excellent as Mabel.  Her speech changes throughout the performance.  At first she has the speech of someone who has never heard others speak and struggles with the sounds.  Under Bell’s tutelage, her speech improves.  Rosling gives us a thoughtful and strong Mabel.

Graham Cuthbertson is an interesting Bell, moving between a loving husband and a dedicated teacher and inventor.  His relationship with his mother, Eliza Bell, played by Catherine Joell MacKinnon, is intriguing.  Eliza is deaf, so MacKinnon doesn’t speak throughout the play, but communicates with two-handed sign language which her son interprets.

Suzanne Bennett as Mabel’s mother, and Michael Spencer-Davis as her father, provide an interesting contrast.  Bennett shows a mother’s devotion, reciprocated by Mabel, while Spencer-Davis gives us the sensible father, making sure that patents are in place to protect financial interests.  The Hubbard family is rounded out with Berta, Mabel’s sister, played by Madelyn Narod.

While the story is so interesting and the characters fascinating, the way it is presented is often puzzling.  The action moves too slowly.  What appears to be a large lift bridge rises to become walls.  The lift is slow and noisy, and completely stops the pace of the play.

Other choices are puzzling.  Apparently Bell is the only character with colour.  While everything else is black, white, and beige, he wears a bright red bathing suit, drinks out of a red cup, sends Mabel a red love letter, and blasts on a red trumpet.  I was distracted trying to figure out the need for the red items.

Characters walk around the stage slowly, almost zombie-like for no apparent reason, again dragging down the pace of the play.

There are odd anachronisms – a modern video camera, obviously not used in the early 1900s, is set up at centre stage, focussing on Bell’s mouth.  The result is a giant pair of mustachioed lips projected on the wall at the back of the stage.  I assume this is to show what Mabel sees, but again, it takes the audience out of the story.  Mabel’s costume is also an anachronism:  for some reason she wears a beige dress from the 1930s era (when in fact, she dies in 1923), while the rest of the women dress in black 1890s’ styles with bustles and floor length gowns.

Unfortunately, these strange concepts take the audience’s attention away from the play as we attempt to understand them.  By eliminating these distractions and tightening the pace, Silence, with its absorbing story, could be an excellent play.

Silence continues at the Grand Theatre, London until February 3.  Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593 or visit www.grandtheatre.com.

Photo: Graham Cuthbertson as Alec Bell and Tara Rosling as Mabel. Photo by Claus Andersen.

Silence ~ Mabel and Alexander Graham Bella
By Trina Davies
Directed by Peter Hinton
Performed by Suzanne Bennett, Graham Cuthbertson, Catherine Joell MacKinnon, Madelyn Narod, Tara Rosling, Michael Spencer-Davis.
Produced by Grand Theatre
Spriet Stage, Grand Theatre, London
January 19 to February 3, 2018
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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