Book and Lyrics: Tracy Ryan
Music and Lyrics: Kaeylea B. VanKeith
Sisters, A New Musical at The dlr Mill Theatre is the latest offering from Tracey Ryan. Set in 1971 against the backdrop of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, the musical tells the story of the fictional single mother Bernadette Boland (Emma Stack, who is a steady hand in steering a vast cast of players) and her fight for a new life with her out-of-wedlock child Katie (Brooke Donnelly). The show begins with Bernadette helping to ready her own sister, Kathleen (a tender and wonderful performance by Aimee McAllister) with her wedding day; a celebration at which we are told neither Bernadette nor her child are welcome. Bernadette’s oft mentioned but never seen father has made clear the shame that he, and by extension the rest of the family, feel about Bernadette’s ‘situation’. The rest of the family are however willing to allow her there as long as she and Katie disappear out the back door when their father arrives with the wedding car.
Then we are whisked away and introduced to the other storylines.
A young man gets a “Johnnie” to his puzzlement and delight. The local girls all read Jackie magazines and flirt with boys; they hang by park benches and almost fulfil their teen urges but for the timely arrival of the catholic priest. This then introduces the main pillar of society that is there to keep women in their place. The audience is reminded by varying figures of authority that the women should keep their heads down, and not speak up for themselves.
All good so far, but nothing that we have not seen before and perhaps seen better. The Abbeys “The Train” springs to mind. This is not to say that the story is not worth telling, in fact seeing it this week with news of protests in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, it is particularly poignant. The episode within the church with the female churchgoers all wearing their headscarves, and their absolute ferocity as the self-appointed moral police, is compelling and striking in its similarity.
The entire cast are enthusiastic but some are utilised more than their fellow cast members. You would have to admire the quick changes that some of the actors perform. This, however, is also a problem; most if not all of the cast play multiple roles, some more convincingly than others.
The accents can slip and indeed they do. This happens more prominently with the male cast, who all seem to play the dim Irishman role in each of their parts. The less said about the ‘cool guy’ roles the better. They come across as neither cool nor interesting.
The other real issue with the musical is its length. Clocking in at 2 ½ hours is simply too much. There is a lot of the play that could be trimmed back and be all the better for it. Certain subplots are underdeveloped or underutilised. McAllister and Brady’s arcs are never fully fleshed out, in favour of a romance story between two other characters of little or no consequence. The danger we are supposed to feel with the northern troubles never really hits home. Saying that, special mention should also go to Cora Doyle and Danna Daly-Davis – both are a welcome presence on stage, one as the tyrannical matriarch and the other as the Darth Vader of Nuns.
Runs until 8 Oct 2022.