Keeping it in the family

  • 11 February 2005
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Declan Hassett's works of nostalgia have been hugely popular over the past fifty years but Brian O'Connell is unconvinced by Sisters

As a theatre critic, Hassett's loyalty to the genre, stemming perhaps from an era when theatre had to compete with the screen for the first time, was understandable, and guided his naturally positive disposition towards productions. Much goodwill exists then towards Hassett – yet goodwill does not necessarily translate into dramatic success.

Written for Anna Manahan, Sisters presents us with two monologues, from Martha and Mary, both performed by the Tony Award winning actress. We find both characters in old age, recalling past events growing up on a farm in an Ireland where, as the writer asserts, "education was the key to a wider, less stifling world".

Although every journey into the past is complicated by delusions, false memories or false namings of real events, the attempt here to fuse revisionism with nostalgia comes across as both fake and unconvincing. Against a biblical backdrop, themes of sibling rivalry, society's expectations and paternal favouritism struggle to liberate themselves from within the stiff narrative structure.

Often the writing is pointed and uncomfortable, and without Manahan's delivery, it would have little by way of salvation. In setting up the double narrative and having Manahan play both sisters, the audience is invited to examine how, despite our best efforts, we come to resemble our family. Although on the surface the sisters would seem miles apart, with Martha staying at home and Mary heading for the big smoke, they are united by a central incident in both their lives, which (rather conveniently for dramatic purposes) was perpetrated by the same man. This realisation allows for the play's twist at the end, which comes right out of leftfield, and brings the activity of suspending belief to a whole new level.

In opposition to post-modern theatre, the need to anchor both monologues in such a controlled conflict/resolution type environment stifles what insights lie underneath the surface. There is a lot of fluff for Manahan to get through in each piece, certain lines and phrases, such as "bitchy" and "periods", just don't gel with a character of her age.

Set design was dreadfully inconsistent throughout. In Act Two for example we are faced with a slightly raked stage serving a conscientiously artistic doorway and window. Yet a modern table, chair and tin of roses sit awkwardly in front of the background denying any consistency to the image. Similarly, lighting did little to expose the darker moments in the storytelling, while an involved soundtrack was practically nonexistent.

It becomes apparent early on that the text is merely a vehicle to drive the reputations of both writer and actor and judging by the standing ovation received at the end, they are preaching to the converted here.

Indeed, Manahan felt compelled to deliver a speech on closing night, dedicating the play to "all the Martha's and Mary's in the audience", and recalling that the previous night a member of the audience paid her a huge compliment saying, "in years from now when this play is on in New York I'll be able to say I saw Anna Manahan perform it first".

This was cringe-inducing stuff, not befitting an actress of her stature, and one hopes it stems from insecurity in the text as opposed to any natural desire to patronise on Manahan's part.

Notwithstanding the fact that this is a new piece of work beginning its dramatic life, Director Michael Scott must take responsibility for failing to make the type of textual and production decisions needed to turn what is at best a mediocre piece of theatre into a sound piece of work.

Reputations alone do not make good theatre.

?More Sisters in conjunction with City Theatre Dublin (SFX) will be appearing at Andrews Lane Theatre from 14 February-26 February