Like many families, the relationship between The Etienne Sisters isn’t perfect. Ree (Jennifer Saayeng) and Tree (Nina Toussaint-White) are burying their mother when estranged half-sister Bo (Allyson Ava-Brown) appears at the wake. The sisters lock eyes for the first time in 5 years and old wounds are instantly re-opened. Ree and Tree relent to Bo staying with them and, for a while, the sisterly bond begins to re-form. But Bo brings with her some unwanted baggage, and when it comes knocking on their front door all underlying tensions between the sisters erupt with destructive consequences.
Ché Walker writes and directs the world premiere of this new production at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Known for productions that combine the theatrical with soul/funk inspired music (Been So Long at the Young Vic in 2009, for example), Walker breaks from his long-time collaborator Arthur Darvill to partner with jazz songwriter Anoushka Lucas and composer/musician Nikki Yeoh, which results in a fusion between styles. Yeoh sits centre stage at a piano and effortlessly performs the soundtrack for this production; rooted in jazz and blues, the music is updated with contemporary touches. Sometimes it’s rich and melodious, at other times stripped back and bare. It straddles the lines between the ‘jazz hands melodies’ that traditional musicals are often known for and the singer-songwriter acoustic setting that modern day productions are embracing more and more. All this with an ending that is instantly reminiscent of Impressionist composition fills the stage with colour and shade for 90 minutes of musical bliss.
Without any indications of glitz or glam, the music provides a perfect undertone for a play that could initially be perceived of as overstylised. But despite the random assortment of chairs on set and the punctuating video projections onto an exposed brick wall, this play is anything but style over substance. The narrative switches between live scenes that re-enact the sisters’ (often inflammatory) interactions and internal character monologues that draw the audience into each woman’s thinking. Each takes it in turn to share their part of the story and, in every case, they draw the audience instantly into their world of pain and hurt, of fear and doubt. Ree (Saayeng) is shy and timid on the outside, but reveals an inner strength unbeknownst to her; Tree (Toussaint-White) seems cold and hard, but only adopts this shield to hide her vulnerabilities; Bo (Ava-Brown) is confident and conniving because her upbringing has taught her that is the only way to survive. Three different characters that each bring their own dimension to the production. But when they sing, their voices blend and instantly resolve all the conflict that the dialogue generates.
Bo takes the vocal lead in many of the numbers, small wonder given Ava-Brown’s previous role as Fantine in Les Miserables, although Ree and Tree are in no way to be considered as backing singers. Every so often, each one stumbles over a couple of notes or delivers a harmony that isn’t quite on pitch, but these enhance the performance rather than detracting from it. The show has character, feeling and most importantly soul – the imperfections create a connection to the material that is more human, more believable.
An imperfect show will always some things that divide opinion. The lack of development around Bo’s troubled past causes the reactions of Ree and Tree to seem contrived; the impact when it resurfaces into Bo’s present isn’t believable. As a consequence one of Tree’s monologues, which should come across as shocking and quite horrific, falls flat. But even a reviewer can overlook some of the issues when there is such a strong sense of identity to this production. x– there is an exciting future for The Etienne Sisters.
The Etienne Sisters is playing Theatre Royal, Stratford East until 3 October. For more information and tickets, see the Stratford East website.