Review: Sister at Ovalhouse

How to describe Born Mad’s Sister? It’s a tricky show to review, actually, because there’s no easy way to sum up what goes on without it sounding a bit… eccentric. So let’s just say this: Sister is beautiful, powerful, inventive, moving and heartwarming. It will make you laugh. It will almost certainly make you cry. It’ll make you hear sounds in a whole new way, and it’ll send you home reflecting on your own relationships – with sisters, if you have them, and with family in general.

The show is made up of many different memories, all of them collected from real women. Some make only a brief appearance, while others resurface throughout the hour-long production. Through these recurring stories we meet Mira, who was separated from her sisters for 15 years by the Albanian civil war; Tara, “a bit of a pyromaniac”, whose earliest memory of her younger sister is the day she accidentally burnt their house down; and Annabel and Jessica, who are best friends as well as sisters. Some of the memories shared are of life-changing events, while others are totally mundane, but together they build up a picture of what it means to have – and be – a sister, with all its highs and lows.

Photo: Ludovic Des Cognets
Photo: Ludovic Des Cognets
The identically dressed Daisy Brown and Nia Coleman are in perfect harmony throughout – and not just when they’re singing (beautifully), but also in their movements and even the way they speak. They’re so in sync, in fact, that at times it becomes hard to believe we’re watching two individuals. The pair present the verbatim accounts that make up the show, bringing to life women of all ages and backgrounds, keeping each persona distinct and instantly recognisable when we return to them later.

Directed by Rebecca Hanbury, Sister is a very visual show, both in terms of the performers’ body language and facial expressions, and in Ben Jacobs’ incredible lighting effects (at one point I genuinely thought the theatre was on fire). But what makes this production unique is its use of sound and music, composed by Alex Groves and all created live on stage by the performers, then amplified by the microphones that cover the set. Gentle opera combines with the simplest of sounds – a hesitant ‘um’, the sound of tea being poured (and the satisfied sigh after that first sip), a crying baby – looping and soaring to build a sort of audio patchwork quilt, each sound bringing to mind a particular story or character, and reminding us once again that life doesn’t always have to be glamorous or exciting for it to mean something.

Photo credit: Ludovic Des Cognets
Photo credit: Ludovic Des Cognets
There are a few moments when the sounds intrude and make it difficult to hear the performers – on at least one occasion this is clearly very deliberate (and spine-tingly effective in a climactic scene), but there are also a couple of times when it’s not so obvious, and we find ourselves straining to hear the spoken words over the speakers above our heads, without really knowing if we’re supposed to be.

But I’m nitpicking. Sister really is a beautiful production, and packs quite a punch emotionally, too – one story in particular, towards the end of the show, very nearly broke me. Ultimately, though, this is a celebration of a unique bond. It doesn’t matter if you have sisters, brothers or neither of the above; if you’re interested in human relationships and enjoy unique, creative theatre, Sister is well worth a look.

Sister is at Ovalhouse until 10th September.

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