Deafinitely Theatre is 10 years old this year, and their current production, Tanika’s Journey, is filling The Vault of the Southwark Playhouse with Soviet snows.

Deafinitely’s productions are made from a deaf perspective and aim to empower deaf culture, identity and pride locally, nationally and internationally. Tanika’s Journey features a mix of spoken English, British Sign Language (BSL), mime and dance to communicate the story, and is intended for both deaf and hearing audiences. It packs a pretty solid emotional punch.

Taking inspiration from the real life journey of one deaf refugee who spent six months travelling from Sri Lanka to London, three months of which were spent walking through the freezing forests of the Ukraine, Tanika’s Journey focuses on a moment of stillness in the travels of a small group of refugees when one, Tanika (Nadia Nadarajah), falls from exhaustion in the snow, forcing them to pause. The play’s scenes alternate between the cold, blue, freezing hiatus of the lonely present, and the warm, orange, happy memories of home.

All the effects and scene transitions were of the very simple but very effective breed: the unfurling of a carpet turned the snows of the forest into a Tamil home; the stretching of two red elastic barriers produced an airport queue. All scene changes were punctuated by the sudden change of sound and lighting effects, which also contrasted the difference between the past and the present: the present was cold, white, windy and blue; the past was warm, musical, orange and softly bright like the setting sun.

Simon Daw’s Narnia-esque set was at once both visually attractive, as snow always is to those that don’t see it very often, and stark, with brittle, black trees, hewn logs and a total absence of colour. Southwark Playhouse’s natural scent of aged, damp brick like an abandoned attic served the piece greatly, adding to the sense of being somewhere infrequently inhabited and not conducive to human comfort (though the Playhouse itself is perfectly comfortable).

The ensemble gave moving performances ranging from contentment to desperation to sorrow to elation. They had a tremendous harmony together, emanating genuine warmth and affection in the home flashbacks, which spread out to cool into enormous empty distance from one another in the forest. Matthew Gurney’s performance as Edward, from what I gather a teacher of Tanika’s who loves her enough to send her away, stood out for me in particular, with his Chaplin-style mimes and imaginary cane swinging. There were several dances by the cast to music which gave the play the feel of a silent film and were terrific fun to behold with their old school Gene Kelly moves, only ‘kickin’ in the snow’ rather than ‘singin’ in the rain’.

As someone non-familiar with sign language, a great deal of stuff went over my head. All spoken word was signed, but not all signed was spoken. While this was a little frustrating at times, I felt the emotion of the moments, rather than the minute details of what was occurring (the gist was always easily grasped, and there were no complexities in the story) were more important, and these never failed to be communicated. Deafinitely’s newest production is one to be caught, especially if you have never seen anything by the company. They have produced a well crafted, highly communicative piece with strong performances and a heavy emotional impact. Definitely one to watch.

Tanika’s Journey runs at Southwark Playhouse until October 20th 2012. For more information and tickets see the Southwark Playhouse Website. Photo by Simon Kane.