Pennyroyal is a conversation. It’s a conversation, an ongoing conversation, between two sisters, Chris and Daff, that, like a garden, is tended carefully, nurtured, watered, given love, and maybe even talked to. And, of course, has manure thrown all over it to ensure that it is robust and resilient and will survive. And, in fact, the conversation branches out to include me; well, in truth, not just me but me and the rest of the audience and we are tended carefully, nurtured, watered (metaphorically), given love, and definitely talked to: but writer Lucy Roslyn resists the urge, mercifully, to chuck manure over us though as the play, the conversation, develops there’s some pretty hard-hitting stuff laid on the sisters by each other and on the audience by both.
This is a fine piece of writing. It grows and develops and buds and ultimately blooms into an ode to love – not lovey-dovey love – but true sisterly affection and warmth and commitment. It’s as if Roslyn is performing a dance of the seven veils as each layer of the relationship is pulled and poked and nudged and scratched at until the first layer is torn away and, as we breathe a little sigh of relief, she starts tugging at the next layer, and the next, until we get down to the body, the flesh, the naked truth. And we are gripped. And we are involved. And we care.
Roslyn was inspired to write Pennyroyal by the 1922 Novella The Old Maid by Edith Wharton, suggested to her by director Josh Roche. The powerful thematic backdrop Roslyn draws on is the medical condition Premature Ovarian Insufficiency which, as I understand it, is a kind of early-onset menopause. Nineteen-year-old Daphne (Daff) is the unfortunate sister to be struck by this diagnosis and, returning to the family home for Christmas, it emerges that her elder sister Christine (Chris) will donate the eggs that she will require.
Of the sisters, Daff is the sparky one. At such a tender age her world is inevitably crushed, she dumps her university course along with her university fiancé, Ian – a relationship so deep that in later years she constantly refers to him as Alan. She loses friends and mopes a bit, and cries a bit, and sighs a bit, and comes to realise how much she misses what she didn’t really appreciate she had.
Madison Clare takes on this difficult juggling act of being sombrely happy and happily sombre as the mood takes and it’s a knowing, intense, pervasive performance that increasingly tugs at our soul. Daff is sparky and Clare gets the trainer-chucking sparkiness; Daff is resilient and Clare ensures in her monologues that we, as part of the conversation, get that. And Daff is ultimately a spent, tragic figure and Clare relates that to us with an extraordinarily fervent passion. We will see more of Madison Clare, I have no doubt.
Chris is older, wiser and has a slightly cynical scepticism – or maybe a slightly sceptical cynicism – and although she is not completely out of the closet she is certainly scratching at the door with her finger-nails, knee and forehead. Roslyn herself takes on this symbiotic role and from the first words in her chatty, personal and self-effacing not-quite-on-stage opening monologue she draws us in, sits us down and ensures that we are in the conversation, that we know that we are in the conversation and, we feel, she’s going to put the kettle on and make us a cup of tea. Roslyn the performer has an instinctive, intrinsic ability to relate to an audience and we hang on her every word. And, of course, they are her words, after all.
The minutiae of the sisterly relationship are acutely observed by Roslyn and deftly encouraged by Roche whose direction is careful and considerate. He fully appreciates the parameters of Roslyn’s exquisite script and allows the characters to grow and burgeon under their own volition. Here we have a director whom, I think, is from the “is this working?… then don’t get in the way” school of thought which is vital in a play such as this built, as it is, around dialogue through relationships and relationships through dialogue: excellent handling of this clever script by Roche.
Emerging alongside the conversation is Sophie Thomas’s superlative set – which is all there at the beginning but you just can’t see it. Through clever use of gauze and subtly intensifying lighting the garden, which is the grounding physical backdrop of the show, comes gradually, imperceptibly, into view, an engaging complement to the themes of propagation, daydreams and hope. Cheng Keng’s lighting design is clearly instrumental in the overall effect of the set and Hugh Sheehan’s music adds just the right potency to the piece.
It’s always good when you learn something from a show: I knew of Pennyroyal, the plant, and thought it was a type of herb. What I didn’t know was it’s a kind of mint, is used medicinally and is actually poisonous. And that sums up neatly the sisterly relationship in Pennyroyal I believe: beautiful to behold, can have a variety of uses and manipulations but can also be highly dangerous if not handled carefully.
Roslyn’s play is intriguing and absorbing and well worth a watch.
Review by Peter Yates
Pennyroyal is a heartrending new play about sisterhood and motherhood; enduring love and regrets many years in the making.
When Daphne is diagnosed with Premature Ovarian Insufficiency at 19, her sister Christine steps in to help in the only way she knows how: by donating her eggs. For a moment, the world seems corrected. But as the years go by and Daphne sets out on the long road of IVF, the sisters’ relationship begins to twist. Pennyroyal explores the things expected of women and what happens when life doesn’t go to plan.
Cast: Madison Clare and Lucy Roslyn
by Lucy Roslyn
Directed by Josh Roche
118 Finborough Road,
London, SW10 9ED
Tuesday, 12 July – Saturday, 6 August 2022