There’s something smugly satisfying about getting a glimpse into the lives of the rich and privileged; especially when they’re wracked with first-world troubles. And in this area, The Colby Sisters of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania doesn’t disappoint, offering us a Gossip Girl-like tale of five squabbling sisters with relationship and secret money woes. Transporting us from the distinctly unglamorous streets of Kilburn to the high-class haunts of these Manhattan society girls, The Colby Sisters offers a glamorous and entertaining night at the theatre.
Director Trip Cullman’s slick production boasts a formidable female-only cast, clad in an array of eye-wateringly stylish outfits, courtesy of designer Richard Kent, making the show as visually arresting as it is compelling. The Colby Sisters is at times searingly funny, particularly in the opening scene which sees the sisters convene for a Vanity Fair-style photo shoot, picking mercilessly on Willow (Claire Forlani in her accomplished stage debut) for having no money and a poor choice of shoes. We go on to follow them through a shocking family tragedy which sees the family unit fragment, the story offering plenty of intrigue as the sisters attempt to pin the blame on the control-obsessed Gemma (Charlotte Parry).
Playwright Adam Bock’s characters are unique and well-drawn. There is the calm, composed beauty of the family, India (Isabella Calthorpe); Garden, (Patricia Potter) who has recently discovered her husband Alexander is cheating (again); the striking Alice Sanders who completes the set as the fey Mouse; and Gemma’s long-suffering personal assistant, played by the charming Ronke Adekoluejo, who breathes fresh air into the insular world of these chronically unhappy ladies of leisure.
The Colby Sisters offers a colourful, engaging story with an abundance of style, but at times this does supersede the substance. At 75 minutes the play feels slight, despite its traditional five act structure and the potential gravitas of the issues it touches upon. Furthermore, it is without a doubt refreshing and commendable to see six charismatic women hold the stage, where audiences elsewhere are again and again shown narratives where women are peripheral to (the usually much more complex and nuanced) male figures. However, the focus on fashion, gossip and in-fighting felt somewhat reductive, whereas men rarely seem to get pigeon-holed to this extent on the stage and screen. Though the play was unmistakably contemporary, with the characters using iPhones and even Kent’s set design resembling a collage of huge iPads, the play felt somewhat traditional in its depiction of housewives who were entirely financially and emotionally dependent on men.
Indeed, at the risk of ruining one of the play’s biggest surprises, I have to also question Bock’s decision to pillory the decisive and opinionated Gemma, who, by the end of the play is effectively disowned by her sisters and pitched against the sweet, pretty, soft-spoken and therefore (of course) more likeable, India. Gemma insists that her sister, Garden, leave her wayward husband, Alexander, for the benefit of her long-term happiness, based on the principle that he has broken their marriage vows and will most likely cheat again – which will only hurt Garden more deeply the more it happens. The heartbroken Garden struggles to accept the breakdown of her marriage and ends up taking her life, for which Gemma is then more and more pointedly held responsible for as the play goes on.
I had to wonder about the decision to villainise Gemma for essentially refusing to see her sister walked over by a man who was clearly cruel and selfish, the argument against which being that Garden was completely in love with and dependent on him. Indeed, Garden’s determined attachment to Alexander in the name of love made the steadfast Gemma seem all the more cruel and heartless. Of course, Garden’s suicide was tragic and unnecessary, however, in being plotted this way, the play’s message seemed to be that, really, it’s just better if women keep their heads down and put up with being treated like emotional punching bags. Essentially, if Gemma had allowed Garden to accept that she would be unhappy and treated as second fiddle by Alexander, at least she would still be alive. Asking for better, or making a change, as Gemma had encouraged Garden to do, was unacceptable, or so the play made it seem.
At a time where we have high profile figures like Beyonce campaigning to reclaim the word bossy, since women with opinions are so often demonised by the negative connotations the word holds, it was disappointing to see that the character who stepped out of the typical and acceptable demureness required of females in order to pull her sister from a metaphorical sinking wreckage, was then solely blamed for her death.
It’s important to have more women on stage and to see more of their stories, and that must be celebrated in this play, even if some of the signals it sends are a bit tricky. And indeed, The Colby Sisters does have plenty going for it, particularly the guilty pleasure of seeing into those opulent lives we are secretly so jealous of. Equally, the sparkling world and sharp wit of these Manhattan socialites makes for some welcome escapism.
The Colby Sisters of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is playing at the Tricycle Theatre until 3 July. For more information and tickets, see the Tricycle Theatre website.