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Theatre Review: The Etienne Sisters (Theatre Royal Stratford East, London)

etienne sisters High-flyign music. Allyson Ava-Brown (left) and Nikki Yeoh (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Robert Day.
etienne sisters

High-flying music. Allyson Ava-Brown (left) and Nikki Yeoh (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Robert Day.

In A Nutshell

A soulful, free, complex, and provocative look at what family means, The Etienne Sisters isn’t just diverse theatre, it’s great theatre.

Overview

Two sisters mourn the death of their mother, when a familiar stranger arrives on the scene: their troublesome estranged half-sister, Bo. In moving in to try and comfort the pair, Bo causes more rifts than wounds healed. Can the family stay together or will they tear themselves apart?

Writing

Ché Walker, having already wowed crowds with Klook’s Last Stand at the Park Theatre, now takes on Joan Littlewood’s stomping ground with another offering of a play with songs. The Etienne Sisters is a look at family, blending traditional dynamics with challenging characters and dysfunctional scenarios.

The most obvious thing about The Etienne Sisters is that it’s black: black characters, black culture, and black music. But for every ounce that screams diversity, Walker delivers a pound of genuinely excellent theatre regardless of its cultural signifiers. Walker, with The Etienne Sisters, goes to show that diverse theatre, something that is noticeably unrepresented on the London theatre scene, doesn’t have to adhere to stereotypes or familiar tropes to be successful or be a reason to exist. Like any other play, Walker’s writing comes from a deep connection with a general subject (in this case: family) which they explore through empathetic resonance and intricate creativity.The bits of The Etienne Sisters that seems obviously black are merely just wonderful dressing, often providing a different viewpoint on the issue rather than fundamentally changing the essence of the subject. Walker, through their triangle of opposing characters, get stuck into how we define family, be it through blood or association, critisising and exploring the impact of the roles people create themselves within the structure and how it affects others’ lives. The Etienne Sisters is a very complex look at belonging, and nothing else. The fact that The Etienne Sisters has black characters and boasts an all black female cast is just a ravishing incidental which garnishes what is at heart a fundamentally complex and provocative play.

Walker’s handle on language is particularly gorgeous, taking basic but quietly poetic language and combining it with an almost song like metre and grace, matching the lyricism Walker injects into The Etienne Sisters’ songs. It’s as almost as if Shakespeare had come from modern-day Brixton rather than Elizabethan Stratford-Upon-Avon, with an almost blank-verse quality to it that grips and playfully strings you along.

Whilst Walker’s The Etienne Sisters is undoubtedly impressive for what it explores rather than what it seems, it’s not perfect. With regards to the narrative, the crunch of story comes out of nowhere and escalates quickly and a little unbelievably. However, its a tricky one as you feel that if things were wrapped up more subtly and over a bit more time, the fuel of Walker’s subject might have started to run low and thus laboured. So whilst the narrative feels a bit rushed and a touch outlandish towards the end, Walker still manages to keep us engaged in the themes explored without losing interest, or the essence of The Etienne Sisters becoming tired.

Music

Anoushka Lucas, an established partner in crime of Walker’s, writes original songs for The Etienne Sisters, with additional material by Sheila Atim, absolutely lifting the show to new heights. Lucas and Atim’s contributions are far from standard soul/R’n’B numbers, and at times some of the music is strange, discordant, fractious and intriguing. But there’s a sense of real heart and emotion in all of them, but not just for the sake of musical aesthetics. Combined with Walker’s lyrics, each song is far from a frivolous aside, finding a way of alternatively exploring the subject of family as deeply and intricately as The Etienne Sisters’ narrative and dialogue. Although not a musical, the songs form as integral a part of The Etienne Sisters and are just as thought and mood provoking as the rest of the show. Combine this with some gorgeous three-part harmonies and blistering power solos, and the experience is aurally thrilling as it is emotionally intellectual.

etienne sisters

Keystone. Nikki Yeoh at the piano in ‘The Etienne Sisters’. Photograph: Courtesy of Robert Day.

Direction & Production

The Etienne Sisters looks completely out of place at Theatre Royal Stratford East as the production values fly in the face of fringe expectations, looking more like some grand Wagner production at the Royal Opera House. Ti Green’s bare raked stage with full back wall exposed and small bonfires of chairs is a complete visual putsch, giving The Etienne Sisters a sense of dangerous desolation and isolation. Within the set design are also many little intricacies and subtleties that relate to The Etienne Sisters’ plot that goes to show it’s not just sheer aesthetic bravura. Louis Price’s video design is also some of the best video design to be seen in theatre. Despite the slightly dubious “opening titles” sequence, Price mixes very subtle 3D image projection, live and interactive video feeds, and pre-made material to add a sense of danger or cold tenderness where needed, plastered across the large brick wall, without ever distracting or looking out of place. Combine this with some great lighting from Arnim Friess, there’s a real wash of scene and atmosphere from start to finish.

Walker, also directing, doesn’t let the size of the paired-back stage faze them. Even though there’s bounds of space to potentially play with, Walker always keeps the action as close-knit and as powder-keg as the family unit that gets put through its paces, playing with physical distance between characters to really tease out the rivalries and the earnest gravitation towards sisterly affection. Yet Walker does include the odd flourish of action in the large space, making great use of the performance area they’ve been bequeathed with.

Cast

It’s really difficult to pick out any one particular performance in The Etienne Sisters as, somewhat like the family unit they’re portraying, they’re as thick as thieves and you can’t really consider them without the other two in tow. Getting behind their characters, they bounce and thrive off each other’s performances and characters, clashing with more explosive energy that the Hadron Collider, and really getting across the complicated and fractious bond between them all.

Jennifer Saayeng gives a cold and domineering performance as Ree, the self-appointed matriarch over her sister, but with a tender sense of scared megalomania and anxious protectionism. This balances wonderful off doe-like and sweet Nina Toussaint-White as Tree, who, even though their character plays second fiddle to either their keeper or tormentor, still puts across a strong sense of individuality and doesn’t feel lost between the two bold personalities on either side of them. Allyson Ava-Brown gives a tremendously energetic and spiteful performance as the enfant terrible, Bo. But Ava-Brown is far from a stock villain as there’s plenty of vulnerability, regret, and tender compassion beneath the mania of the dangerous games Bo plays.

The fourth character, Nikki Yeoh, on piano, constantly on stage and sometimes responding to the story, gives a grandiose and virtuoso performance at the keyboard. Yeoh is as ravishing to watch playing as Saayeng, Ava-Brown, and Toussaint-White are to see and sing, and its a pleasure to witness them on stage alongside the cast.

Verdict

A daring look at family, The Etienne Sisters is a jewel of a show by Theatre Royal Stratford East. Don’t see this because it’s part of a community-orientated programme, see it because it’s a soulfully spectacular journey through the meaning of family.

The Etienne Sisters plays at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, E15 1BN, until 3rd October 2015. Tickets are £7.00 – £22.50 (concessions available). To book, visit www.stratfordeast.com.

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