The New Year as well as being a time of resolution is often one of reflection, a chance to reassess any achievements, progress or setbacks over the previous 12-months or longer. But when you look back across your life, what is it you really remember? Often it will be the big landmark occasions, the birthdays, graduations, weddings, births, funerals and anniversaries that shape your biography – and why, because we are taught to believe that all narratives should have shape and meaning, that a story should have a beginning, middle and end. And so we impose order and self-determination on what is essentially a random accumulation of personal experience over time and it’s through these key “achievements” or steps that we come to define ourselves as individuals, families and as a society.
But while the externally imposed notions of marriage, children and these other milestones are things we feel we should do, life is really the bits in between, the day-to-day experiences and interactions that don’t make the memoirs or highlights reel, as Alexandra Wood’s new play The Tyler Sisters explores with skill. Configured as an annual conversation between three sisters over 40-years, Wood’s focuses is on the present moment at any given time to burrow deep into the changing but nonetheless enduring relationship between quite different siblings whose lives take them in unexpected directions but always draws them back together.
And what is so interesting about The Tyler Sisters as a concept is how rarely Wood chooses to elaborate on the those big defining moments, in fact much of the sisters’ lives happen off-stage, and as the years go by we are given only fleeting glimpses of the arrival of partners, children and tricky parental relationships, none of whom ever appear in the play. Instead, Wood uses her two hour run-time to explore the bond between these women and how time affects their interactions by setting one scene in every year from 1990 to 2030.
In the smaller downstairs space of the Hampstead Theatre, the staging area is a long, thin rectangle but director Abigail Graham maintains a minimal feel to the production with a sparse stage designed by Naomi Kuyck-Cohen with only a giant beanbag, set of steps and a small screen to notify the audience of another year passing as well as occasionally offering a contextual location. This simplicity easily – and convincingly – takes the audience into the homes of each of the characters, to galleries and campsites, as well as to numerous international locations for holidays and temporary emigrations. But, purposefully devoid of distracting scenery, Wood and Graham want the audience to understand that the location of the scene is all but irrelevant, it is the interaction between the sisters that is important.
Each scene differs in length, covering 25-years before a brief interval and the remaining 15-years in Act Two. As tensions boil and subside over four decades, the screen counter supports the production’s momentum and rather than either distracting the audience or weighing down the drama with how far the story has to go, Wood employs a great deal of variety across the play, giving some periods considerably more time to explore a particular issue or life event – all of which purposefully occur off-stage – and using different techniques to convey information about the emotional or familial backdrop to the segments of conversation the audience is privy to.
And that is the crux of The Tyler Sisters, what we see and hear are 40 partial insights that like a patchwork form a larger and more complex whole. Wood deliberately sidesteps the soapy major dramas, so lovers, marriages, children and other life events come and go but we only hear about them in everyday conversation, almost asides to the real lives these women are living together. And while the reality of other characters is almost as concrete as the three people on stage, what we know about the other characters is what Maddy, Gail and Katrina feel about them at any given moment, their anticipation or excitement about a future with a new partner, the disappointment at their failure and lasting resentments as long-forgotten encounters suddenly re-emerge.
There is also sufficient variation across the play to prevent the style becoming too repetitious and not only do scenes flow continuously from one to the next with the actors taking only a breath before relocating to a different time, location and emotional perspective but Wood leaves events often unresolved. Conversations end without conclusion as characters storm out, go silent or change the subject, the details of that interaction and that year’s particular drama less relevant than the overall effect of families continually falling out and coming together. The play, in a sense, is full of these unresolved cliffhangers but this is not where the audience should be looking for the dramatic drive. Instead Wood is writing moments that show the unity of the family regardless of the events of that year. This concept extends to alternative scenes including a karaoke night and a tender scene of silent sandwich-making that is heavy with unspoken and unexplained grief that says much about the supportive connection between the sisters.
It’s fascinating writing that reverses expectations of storytelling, subverting our dramatic assumptions about progress between milestones and the journey towards major revelations, making instead the small, everyday lived experience the focus. There is something of My Brilliant Friend in the scale and ambition of The Tyler Sisters with the same actors playing the sisters across the years with only the subtlest alteration to personality and acceptance of responsibility, but Wood and Graham are more successful in creating characterisation that the audience can invest in, while resisting the temptation to play out the pop culture references of the passing years. There is purposefully no talk of external politics, world events or societal strife, no nostalgic soundtrack, or distracting film and TV references, no attempt to differentiate the future with technological changes or dystopian vision, instead Wood creates something that could almost cover any 40-year period, with each scene a domestic building block reflecting on a lifelong connection.
It’s not easy to achieve but no one character is any more or less interesting than the rest. Giving each of the women a distinct personality, personal ambition and an equal share of the narrative is skillfully achieved. The eldest Maddy (Caroline Faber) is 20 when we first meet her in 1990 and turns 60 as the play concludes. In many ways, she is the most traditional of the three, is married young to a fellow teacher and embarks on a quiet life of family, motherhood and obligation. For much of the earlier part of the play, Maddy remains almost in the background, a sensitive, quiet and unassuming woman who resignedly takes everything life throws at her with very little complaint.
Yet Faber slowly introduces two quite intriguing elements to the performance that build into a more complete picture of Maddy as the decades pass; first there are subtle hints of disapproval at the romantic choices that both her sisters make, especially Gail whose discussion of sexuality causes notable concern for Maddy expressed through looks to the floor and slight withdrawal into herself as Faber’s body-language conveys her discomfort. These are more pronounced as Gail’s choices take her further away from Maddy’s idea of how life should be, and, while largely unspoken, become a longstanding source of underlying tension between them.
Second, as Maddy ages the disappointment and frustration she feels with the behaviour of her own family is increasingly vocalised and she finds both an inner strength and confidence to force a break with the past. In the later stages of the play, with the build-up of years of sacrifice and dedication behind her, this gives Faber a chance to plausibly let loose revealing more about her character’s struggles to determine a new way ahead for herself. It’s a subtle but meaningful performance from Faber about the consequences of a life lived in the shadow of other people’s achievements.
Bryony Hannah takes on the role of middle child Gail, 18 at the start of the play and returned from university for the summer to fight with her younger sister about bedrooms. Gail is the sister whose future seems clearest, a university education, good job and future prosperity that should satisfy her early hints at ambition. Hannah gives Gail a flinty side too, one that emerges more strongly as the years go by, unwilling to settle or be taken advantage of, and certainly a quiet confidence that rarely allows her to question her choices, an approach that occasionally brings her into conflict with her sisters.
Of all the sisters Gail moves most easily through her life and while it brings troubles enough, she pragmatically accepts the major changes and opportunities that come her way with relatively little fear. Yet Hannah also reveals Gail’s pivotal role as a classic middle child, a mediator who most notably escapes the traditional family dramas but increasingly takes on the responsibility of bringing the family together for trips and activities, or to arbitrate between the extremes of her relatives. She is the most independent sibling yet the one who feels increasingly drawn to the importance of family stability, support and continuity as they age.
As youngest sister Katrina, Angela Griffin is also the most open-hearted, supporting her sisters’ choices and enthusiastically welcoming news of partners, children and achievements. But Katrina, who is just 16 when the action begins, has a different trajectory that takes her from self-centred teenager and free-spirited young woman who enjoys partying to a responsible career-orientated businesswoman. Griffin gives Katrina a sharp wit, and much of the play’s humour derives from her sparky one-liners, while also showing someone whose emotions are fairly close to the surface – a trait that hardens over time as Katrina develops her own confidence and pride in her achievements.
Later in the play, as Katrina builds her business and her reputation – she also comes later to family stability – she resents the openly patronising attitude of her sisters who niggle and dismiss her slow climb to the top, while as the women enter their 50s a more supportive role emerges as she finds pleasure in the achievements of her sisters and their extended families. Griffin makes Katrina incredibly likeable, grounded and hard-working as she explores a life that starts and ends in very different places.
There are not a huge amount of sibling plays, Shakespeare enjoyed brothers and sisters in disguise, Branden Jacobs Jenkins recently delved into the stirred hornet’s nest of a conflicted family in the high drama Appropriate, while Chekhov’s Three Sisters were primarily troubled by the restrictions on women’s lives and their inability to return to their childhood home in a period of extraordinary military upheaval – all of which take place in delimited time frames – so Wood is filling a notable gap in charting the experience of just being a sister day-to-day and year-to-year. With plenty of new voices emerging in regional and fringe theatre, starting a new decade with a play about women’s experience created by a largely female team is to be welcomed and while across cultural representations, women continue to seen as wives and mothers first, in Alexandra Wood’s new play they are also individuals and sisters who discover, without the traditional drama tropes, that they are already leading pretty interesting and meaningful lives.