Musical with sign language set for national tour after Swanage debut

A brand-new reworking of a classic story – which integrates sign language into the performance – gets its debut at The Mowlem theatre in Swanage.

The Princess and the Pauper incorporates deaf and hearing actors and takes the famous Mark Twain story and turns it on its head to feature female leads.

It also breaks new ground by blending song and sign language. The show, as part of the Swanage Rep Season, runs from Tuesday 17th August until Saturday 28th August 2021.

It’s been made possible by a grant from the Culture Recovery Fund and a project grant from Arts Council England.

The Princess and the Pauper
Danny Kaan

Lead actresses Rhiannon Jones and Hannah Brownlie in rehearsals

“You will be blown away”

Producer Katherine Mount said:

“I’m so keen for everyone to know that this is completely accessible for deaf people and for hearing people. Even if you have never experienced sign language before, you will understand it all and I truly believe you will be blown away by the beauty and expression it adds to a piece of theatre, especially when music is involved. 

“Fundamentally this is a classic tale reimagined as a family musical that everyone will enjoy, it just so happens to have sign language woven into the piece that adds an extra magical layer.”

Katherine was inspired by the experience of her own son Ethan who was born deaf. As a professional actress and singer, she was profoundly affected by her initial belief that her son would never be able to access music.

The Princess and the Pauper
Danny Kaan

The show is based on the classic Mark Twain story The Prince and the Pauper

“It was life changing”

Katherine explained:

“Alongside advice to keep background noise to a minimum to encourage listening skills, when Ethan was still a baby, I stopped playing music and found singing an emotional impossibility for years. But when sign song came along, it was life changing.”

This ‘sign song’ took the form of The Kaos Signing Choir for Deaf and Hearing Children which Ethan joined at the age of six.

It helped him discover music and culminated in him appearing at the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 and featuring in a CBBC documentary.

The Princess and the Pauper
Danny Kaan

The actors had to learn British Sign Language (BSL) for the performance

“Fully integrated musical”

Katherine added:

“After many years of struggling to find accessible shows to take my son to watch, producing theatre myself and experimenting with the use of British Sign Language in song, the idea for a fully integrated musical was developed and The Princess and the Pauper was born.”

The fully British Sign Language (BSL)-integrated production stars Rhiannon Jones (Silent Witness, BBC) as Tess Canty and Hannah Brownlie (The Offenders, Amazon) as Bess Tudor.

They are joined by David King Yombo (The Visit, National Theatre), Alex Scott Fairley (Blood Brothers, West End and UK tour) and Julie Wood (Radio Sea Breeze, TV).

The Princess and the Pauper
Danny Kaan

Hannah Brownlie plays the Princess, against Rhiannon Jones’ Pauper

“She is feisty”

In the musical, Tess Canty and Elizabeth Tudor may look alike, but their lives could hardly be more different. Elizabeth is a princess and heir to the throne; Tess is a miserable pauper. That is, until one day fate intervenes. For a while, each must see how the other lives.

Rhiannon Jones said:

“I have absolutely loved taking on the role of Tess Canty in the Princess and the Pauper. She is feisty and it’s such an exciting role to play. It’s been so beautiful to see the show come together with BSL weaved into the core of it as both a means of access and storytelling. This show is a first for me, so I am learning a lot and loving it all!”

Julie Wood said:

“Having had no previous experience of BSL, I feel a great sense of achievement acquiring this new skill and it’s something I would like to build on for future work as it makes theatre so much more accessible for all.”

The Princess and the Pauper
Danny Kaan

Actors Alex Scott Fairley and Julie Wood in rehearsals

“It feels a very natural form of expression”

Julie added:

“I love the way in which the signing has been integrated into the choreography. It feels a very natural form of expression and enhances the dialogue and movement beautifully.”

David King Yombo said:

“A lot of times when singing you just don’t know what to do with your hands. We certainly don’t have that problem on this show! We’ve got our hands full!

“I did find it very challenging and felt a lot of pressure early on in the process but the support and patience from my cast, the team and the experts that came in was amazing.”

The Princess and the Pauper
Danny Kaan

The show is accessible to deaf and hearing alike

“Challenged me as an actor”

David added:

“I have felt so lucky to be a part of something that has challenged me as an actor and made me think deeply about access, disability, art, inclusivity, empathy and kindness.”

The show is set to have a very interesting run, with a national tour planned next year, but it will be seen first in Swanage.

The princess and the pauper poster

The show gets its debut in Swanage but will tour nationally next year

The Swanage Rep Company

The Swanage Rep Season had to be cancelled in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic but had run for the previous three years, attracting residents and visitors alike to see the popular summer shows.

In 2019, the company performed three plays over three weeks at The Mowlem to impressive reviews – The 39 Steps, Keeping Up Appearances and Wait Until Dark.

In the year before, the company staged the children’s classic, The Railway Children, a very apt choice for Swanage, allowing the cast to shoot some publicity shots at Swanage Railway.

This year the theatre company will also stage at The Mowlem in September, Educating Rita by Willy Russell followed by Noel Coward’s classic comedy, Private Lives.

Book tickets

Tickets can be booked via The Mowlem Box office or via its website

Watch a behind the scenes rehearsal

Share this story

Contact us

Do you have anything to add to this story?

We like to keep everything up-to-date, so if you know more, please help us by getting in touch.