Mary Woodward Review

Sister Radio, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Studio Theatre, Review:

**** (4 stars)

“intriguing and well-observed”

What a delight to visit Pitlochry’s Festival Theatre for the first time, and discover the jewel – small but perfectly formed – which is their new Studio Theatre. 

This intimate space is perfect for the two-hander that played out before us: two sisters from Tehran, making a life for themselves in Edinburgh.  Because of the upheavals in Iran their supposedly short-term stay in the 1970s extends to 2020, when we see them stuck together, isolated in lockdown.

Sister Radio is a game they played when young, in which they “talk about everything”.  The onstage radio plays a significant part in the drama, setting the period with topical news items and sometimes blurring the distinction between ‘then’ and ‘now’, replaying some of the sisters’ previous remarks.

Fatemeh [Lanna Joffrey] came to Edinburgh first, following her father’s order.  It’s not clear quite how long she’s been living there before Shirin [Nalân Burgess] joins her, but it’s been long enough for Fatemeh to have started smoking and, horror of horrors, taking milk in her tea.  Shirin is a tentative, apologetic guest at first, unsure how to behave in her sister’s home; but they soon learn how to live with each other and settle into a routine, a vital part of which is consulting the coffee grounds to see what the future holds.

It’s not long before Fatemeh reveals another significant departure from the behaviour that would be expected of her in Tehran: she has a boyfriend – and a Scottish one at that.  Shirin is both shocked and intrigued – she is obsessed with the love songs of a contemporary female pop singer, and wants to know “are you in love? What’s it like?

We swap backwards and forwards in time.  The situation in Iran deteriorates and the sisters’ reactions to it are polar opposites – Shirin wants to go back, to protest, to fight, while Fatemeh sees the dangers inherent in that course of action, and urges waiting.  They argue, they make up, they consult the coffee grounds; they play small tricks on each other [like hiding the TV remote].  Slowly a terrible secret is revealed – no wonder the sisters, isolated yet imprisoned together by the pandemic, continue to move around each other but rarely speak to each other…

The play – the first written by Egyptian Sara Shaarawi – is intriguing, well-observed [especially the fluctuating dynamic between sisters], and gives a thought-provoking insight into a culture and way of life that may be unfamiliar.  It highlights the challenges facing immigrants to Scotland today – where do they belong? Do they stay, or try to go back ‘home’? – and raises questions of family obligation and the tension between a strong sense of familial duty and the desire to live for and be oneself.

The radio links to establish the time of the action were a clever device, but I found them at times distracting, when my brain furiously tried to work out quite ‘when’ we were.  I’ve lived through all the events being referenced, but wasn’t necessarily able to place them chronologically with any accuracy! 

Lanna Joffrey and Nalân Burgess were extremely believable sisters, running the gamut of emotions as they loved and hated each other, supported each other and couldn’t stand each other.  Their accents perturbed me a bit, as the elder sister sounded quite American and the younger very English, but they were very good at ‘acting old’ when they clearly were not: oh! how I found myself resonating with their aches and stiffness…   

The set was simple but beautifully designed to make the sisters’ movements and domestic routines clearly show the progress of their relationship: and they seemed to have to eat a lot on stage [interestingly, sandwiches, scones and tiny biscuits – all very Scottish!]  I loved the way their movements while drinking their coffee and consulting the grounds were initially completely unrelated but became completely in synch as the years went by.  The overall choreography was excellently worked out as they moved themselves and their props around the set, though the dance-like way they did this at times tended to diffuse the emotional intensity.  The linking music, mostly unfamiliar, was very atmospheric – and I liked the touch of doom [the ‘fate knocking at the door’ opening bars of Beethoven’s fifth symphony] which introduced the announcement of the first lockdown restrictions.

This was a ‘relaxed’ performance – the house lights stayed [partly] up, the exit doors remained open throughout, and it would have been perfectly okay to move about the auditorium had one needed to.  This was my first experience of a ‘relaxed’ show – it didn’t impair my enjoyment in the slightest – and I appreciated the two actresses coming on stage just before the show began to welcome us and introduce themselves and their characters.

I found Sister Radio a bit slow – was this part of the relaxed performance, or perfectly usual?  [Am I too used to the rushing pace of Western drama?]  I felt that the secret that was revealed was flagged up pretty well in advance – but maybe that’s because I’ve been watching a lot of theatre lately…  The acting was good – but as I’ve little experience of meeting Iranian women, I can’t say how realistic they were: are their customs and manners different?  The deepest emotions were very real, and universal. 

The audience, though not packing the house, was warmly appreciative of the performance.  I’m really glad I made the effort to visit Pitlochry, and look forward to future visits to sample the other shows on the Festival Theatre’s excellent programme.

Sister Radio, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Studio Theatre, Runs until Wednesday 28th September, for tickets go to: Sister Radio | Pitlochry Festival Theatre

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