When Jonny Cotsen’s theatrical memoir premiered over a year ago, it was impossible not to get swept up by the emotion of it all. Stories like this are rarely seen on stage and, for many audiences, a peek into the world of the D/deaf community was an eye-opening one. The show returns a year later, in advance of a residency at the Edinburgh Fringe, with that emotional engagement still intact. There is a lot to like about Louder is not Always Clearer and, especially on first viewing, its undoubtedly powerful.
Cotsen himself is the play’s main strength. Though still not entirely comfortable on stage, his warm and charming demeanour carries him through in a big way. The production’s best moments are when Cotsen shares anecdotes from his life, such as the time he gave his hearing aid to a young deaf girl in India who had never heard before. The picture is painted of a man who, in the face of a potentially debilitating disability, continues to excel and achieve great things.
A story like this will never stop being interesting. However, on repeat viewings, the piece loses that emotional punch and its flaws come to the fore. The problems aren’t in the story itself, but in its presentation. Other than in the opening sequence, Cotsen never seems comfortable in the more physical parts of the show. He’s at his best when in storytelling mode, engaging with the audience and sharing his experiences, but the movements are forced and, at times, difficult to understand. Director Gareth Clark wants the show to be both a piece of storytelling and a piece of performance art, but ends up not properly realising either of them.
This is perfectly captured in the final third of the piece, when a recording plays of Cotsen’s mother discussing his childhood. It’s an extremely poignant and fascinating listen, but it’s accompanied by a series of bizarre physical movements from Cotsen. It isn’t made clear what the movements represent and end up serving as a distraction. Funnily enough, its followed immediately by a sequence that demonstrate what the performer is capable of. Cotsen starts a conversation with the D/deaf members of the audience in British Sign Language, with the majority of the hearing audience unable to understand. Without explicitly stating it, that brief moment beautifully illustrates the struggles of being a minority, and it doesn’t need any extraneous gestures to go along with it.
When Cotsen is allowed to be himself in that way and interact with the audience, Louder is not Always Clearer is at its most powerful, and that’s why this is still an engaging watch. However, there are certainly structural flaws and, when the emotional attachment to the piece is no longer there, those flaws are more apparent. Jonny Cotsen’s life, and the lives of those with a hearing impairment, is fascinating to learn about; but, in its current iteration, it may be the sort of show you can only see once.