The new year is a good time to stage Alexandra Wood’s play about three sisters, who we witness ageing over 40 years: we tend to really notice the passing of time around now (another year gone, hasn’t it flown? etc etc). Plus, much of the audience will also just have spent a fat chunk of time with their own families, ensuring every bit of bickering and button-pushing hits home.
Forty years is a lot, though, and Wood stages a single scene from every year – from 1990 to 2030 – in a play that’s only two hours long, including an interval. Admittedly, some years just get a blast of karaoke or a game on the Wii (classic Christmas 2006 activity), while others delve deeper into relationships, bereavements, parenthood, addiction. But the pace is always – by necessity – speedy, the scenes skidding past us.
At first, this feels restless and insubstantial, a jarring gimmick rather than a fruitful formal device. But then something clicks into place, the show settles into its rhythm, and the snappiness of the short scenes becomes deeply satisfying. The more you know these women, the more shorthand Wood can use, and the more the audience can be in on the jokes or predict characters’ reactions, their quirks and behaviour patterns, just like sisters do.
I did wish, however, that director Abigail Graham had put more trust in Wood’s writing: a TV screen not only states each year as it ticks by (fine) but becomes a pretty ugly, unimaginative way to deliver over-explanatory stage directions detailing location or context. The play usually gives you enough, so all these do is deprive your brain of the pleasure of quickly whirring to work it out. Most action takes place on an almost-bare turquoise set, with Joshua Gadsby’s lighting deftly helping to shift place and mood too, but occasional moments of hyper-realism – making actual sandwiches on a detailed, wheeled-on kitchen counter, for instance – feel at odds with Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s largely stripped-back design.
Graham’s production does have – as it needs to – three lovely, very different performances, all with great comic timing. Despite being the oldest, Maddy is the meek sister, who begins as a bit of a damp doormat, albeit delivered by Caroline Faber in a deliciously bewildered deadpan. Bryony Hannah starts supercilious and judgmental as Gail, while the more rebellious little sister Katrina is played with fierce good humour by Angela Griffin. All three neatly have their strengths and flaws, ways they change and ways they stay the same, but it’s a pleasure watching them shift between being supportive or judgmental, protective or irritated with one another.
Also extremely impressive is how the actors all age their characters, year by year almost minute by minute, so subtly you often don’t notice it’s happening. Suddenly, they’re in their thirties, then their fifties. And how like life is that?