In his author’s note, Max Dickins writes that his play began with a single question of what it means to love one’s family. Kin, staged by Pelican Productions, unearths the nuances of the human condition and love by examining familial obligation, and the intricacies of sisterhood through the lens of a fractured past and a hope of reconciliation.
Sitting in the darkened room at the Burton Taylor Studio, I initially expected an emotionally intense and (dare I say it) rather draining experience after reading the content-heavy blurb of the play about a dead father and estranged sisters. Instead, I was greeted with a dynamic exploration of relationships seamlessly peppered with comedy at every turn. Brimming with hesitations and underlying tensions, as past revelations and memories come tumbling in an avalanche, Kin takes the audience through the meandering journey of the sisters’ attempt at reconciliation all while interweaving such natural repartee, that at times I could almost hear my own sister’s voice delivering the lines.
The play’s premise is deceptively simple: two sisters reunite after 20 years in the context of their father dying. The whole plot follows conversations between the seemingly opposite sisters: one, now a mother in a loveless marriage, who stayed behind to take care of their sick father, and the other, career-driven, someone for whom family is a biological imperative rather than anything tangible. Indeed, the casting was flawless as both actors successfully matched the description Dickins offers for each sister: Sarah, a ‘city girl’ with a ‘power haircut’ (Wren Talbot-Ponsonby), and Lily, who has ‘the air of an art teacher about her’ (Lily Massey), was accurately represented with the yellow jumper and boots. With their father on his deathbed offstage, veins of past conflicts run through with jealousy, betrayal, and discussions of loss accompanied by topical themes of maternal instinct, love, and family as a biological programming. Simultaneously, the two sisters revisit fond memories, go through pictures, and even perform a heart-warmingly hilarious dance routine from their childhood.
The whole play revolves around the conversation of only two actors on stage, yet the electricity of the performance entirely enthralled the audience as the nuances in their characters filled up the stage. As the sisters sat in their living room centre stage, the positioning of the audience on all three sides dramatically added to the feeling of a fly on the wall of a complex family drama unravelling. The natural ease of the conversation complemented the past underlying tensions and created an atmosphere of familial familiarity, with a script so carefully constructed, yet delivered so organically. The captivating exploration of relationships held my attention so completely that I didn’t jot down a single note, even though I had three notebooks in my bag. Glimpsing at the audience opposite me was enough to recognise that the two actors commanding the stage had transfixed not just mine, but everyone’s attention throughout the whole performance.
At a glance, the costumes, the staging, and the props were all simple: wine bottles, a suitcase, a table, some boxes, and some pictures. As the play progressed, the intent behind each stylistic choice became clear: each was positioned with a specific purpose. What was remarkable was the use of sounds on stage. To keep a check on the father, the character Lily had a baby monitor. Stylistically, however, it played an important role in adding intensity to scenes of conflict where the sisters physically fought, or hesitated to reply, the quickened breaths creating an increasingly pressurised atmosphere. Yet, the duality of the play allowed even the sounds to be used comically as at one point when the father’s breathing stopped: rather than the expected flatline sound, the tension was diffused immediately with the sound of his flatulence.
The physicality of the actors must also be applauded. At times eliciting laughter with the comedic impressions arising from a toupee, while at another point during Sarah’s breakdown, the stage direction of being ‘collapsed on her haunches’ was portrayed so viscerally that I felt the urge to comfort the actor. The performance spectacularly encapsulated the character’s fragility in the scene: she is completely defeated in the face of all the accumulating dread and the prospect of becoming like her father: ‘loveless’, ‘friendless’, ‘totally unremembered’.
Dickins writes that ‘love and hate are tightly helixed’. This duality was ultimately mirrored in every aspect of Wren Talbot-Ponsonby and Lily Massey’s performance. The dichotomy of the sisters and the juggling of universal topics of death, love and family punctuated with humorous interjections essentially characterised this play as the coming together and reconciliation of not just two sisters, but the reconciliation of the multivalence of what it means to love family. The organic interactions of the actors certainly showcased this very notion of sisterhood being so intricately linked, simultaneously a cage, yet something so very integral to the pair, each longing for a connection. It was the nuances of the actors’ body language from the initial uncomfortable shifting eye contact, the inconspicuous fiddling of rings and subtle clenching of fingers during intense moments to the hesitancy in the final climactic hug, hindered previously by external interruptions, that truly portrayed the familiarity of the sisters with each other and the ache of their past separation.
Talking to the actors and the director after the show’s closing night at the theatre was illuminating. The fact that none of the actors have sisters, or that they only had a week and a half of face-to-face rehearsals and yet put on such a gripping performance stands as a testament to their skill and the director’s, Libby Alldread, in bringing forward such effortless fluidity in the scenes. Not a second was unaccounted for, not a second was out of place, and yet each moment was so natural, so fluent, and so taut in its delivery, that even the stagehand placing take-away boxes on the table mid-performance did not suspend the belief in the fictitious reality unfolding on stage. On asking the actors and director whether they thought the sisters did speak to each other again after the end of the play, Talbot-Ponsonby who played the older sister characteristically suggested that Sarah probably sent a picture of her cat in a WhatsApp message with no context.
I left the theatre with one thought on my mind: I can’t wait to call my sister!