Thursday, September 8, 2016

Review: 'Sister' at Ovalhouse, 7th September 2016

Wowsers what a show. It's funny how life turns up coincidences - in this case two shows in two nights about female relationships. Yet one, Vanities the Musical, was the theatrical equivalent of jamming a fork in my eye, while the other was gobsmacking from tip to toe.

Born Mad's Sister is a conceptual, verbatim piece about the relationships between sisters (and wider family), taking the form of an hour long sound collage led by two fantastic performers, Daisy Brown and Nia Coleman, who sing, act and move in perfect synchronisation with one another. Writer/director Rebecca Hanbury condenses their dialogue from countless hours of interviews of nearly fifty women and girls from across the UK, cutting, pasting and overlapping snatches of interview into a smoothly constructed tapestry. On top of this there's live musical mixing from Alex Groves, weaving just recorded loops over the live vocals and.. and... and...

Okay, it's a toughie to explain. But you've got to trust me on this, it's awesome. At the outset we're thrown into the deep end, but after ten minutes or so you begin to tease out story strands. Three stand out; an Algerian woman's guilt at abandoning her younger sisters to civil war whilst she raises a family in England; the shifting relationship of twins; and a young pyromaniac who accidentally burns the family home down. Other characters rear their heads and disappear back into the melee - each person brilliantly delineated by the two performers' body language, accents and cadences.

There are moments in Sister that gave me chills: the dialogue and singing building to stupendously shiver-inducing emotional crescendos, underpinned by powerful direction, lighting design and a crazy-good soundscape. For example, during the 'burning down the house' scene, the performers are slowly backlit by orange spotlights, dry ice begins to fill the room and we hear the soft crackling of burning wood. It was so effective that I swear I could smell smoke. 

Sister is undeniably emotionally and aesthetically successful, though it also functions as straightforwardly impressive feat of performance. Brown and Coleman sing and act in perfect synchronisation, every micro-expression and verbal tic replicated exactly. It's like watching a high-wire act - the slightest wobble and the whole thing falls apart. But the duo never put a foot wrong, displaying a faintly unnerving confidence in each other's abilities and their own I shudder to think how long it must have taken to rehearse a thing like this, not to mention the sheer commitment and concentration required to sustain perfection for an hour.

In a way Sister is a gently paradoxical experience. The major stories feel completely distinct from one another; for example in many respects the story of a guilt-ridden Algerian woman has very little to do with the life experiences of the twins. Yet, the performance and sound design bind them into a whole, blurring the edges of each interviewee until we're experience them as members of a richly textured choir, each interviewee weaving themselves into a universal femininity.

I don't really have much more to say without spoiling things too much. This is an experience like little else I've seen in theatres of late. It's sonically, visually and textually beautiful; able to make you laugh and feel in equal measure; and Daisy Brown and Nia Coleman's performance skills are through the goddamn roof. 

If you have even a glimmer of artistic adventurism, or a desire to see emotion being transmuted into art, Sister is the show for you. It's leagues beyond everything else on the stage right now - you should be running, not walking, to the ticket page. Go go go!


Sister is at Ovalhouse until September 10th. Tickets here.

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