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The Etienne Sisters at the Theatre Royal Stratford

Allyson Ava-Brown and Nikki Yeoh
L-R, Allyson Ava-Brown and Nikki Yeoh
(photo credit Robert Day)

As Harper Lee said in ‘To kill a Mockingbird’ – ‘You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not’ – and this is the central theme of Ché Walker’s “The Etienne Sisters” receiving its world premiere at the Theatre Royal, Stratford.

A funeral is a difficult thing for anyone to cope with and for sisters Tree (Nina Toussaint-White) and Ree Etienne (Jennifer Saayeng) the funeral of their mother is made worse by the appearance of their estranged half-sister, Bo (Allyson Ava-Brown). It has been five years since the three of them have been together and, for Tree at least, time has not healed the dislike she feels for Bo. Ree, the warmer of the the two is prepared to at least listen to Bo and give her the benefit of the doubt, persuading Tree to let her move in with them so that there can be family looking after each other. At first, all is going well and even Tree is starting to unbend towards Ree but then things change as a man called Duvivier comes searching for Bo, causing all three sisters to re-evaluate their feelings and relationship with each other.

Ché Walker has created a very powerful and deep piece with “The Etienne Sisters” and obviously understands family dynamics really well as the play is extremely believable as are the three sisters themselves. Most impressive was the character of Tree who above both of the others really understood what family should mean. Having said that, Bo was a wonderfully drawn character with her street-smarts and obvious but effective manipulation of people, particularly young Ree, who comes across initially as rather naive in the way she falls for Bo’s talk but does in fact have a very strong personality as demonstrated when she stands up Tree about Bo moving in. All three actresses delivered truly powerful performances as their respective character not only in characterisation but also with the strength and emotion of their singing voices. Which brings us to the songs by Anoushka Lucas and Sheila Atim. Each song really added to the narrative expressing much of the inner thoughts of the characters and linking the three sisters in ways that normal spoken words would probably not have been able to accomplish. This is particularly true of the final song which was really intense and moving.

In addition to writing this lovely one act play, Ché Walker also directs and keeps things nice and simple. The set, an empty stage apart from a grand piano and some piles of wooden chairs, designed by Ti Green works very well as does the video projection designed by Louis Price, although it was a bit disconcerting to see the credits projected on the back wall at the start, accompanied by Nikki Yeoh, looking stunning as she played the piano, the only accompaniment to the singing. This worked really well, in fact a full orchestra or band would have really distracted from the poignancy of the words.

Overall, “The Etienne Sisters” is a lovely study of what it means to be a member of a family. A moving and emotive piece of theatre superbly written and delivered by a highly talented team that leaves the audience realising that no matter what is said or done, blood is thicker than water.
4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

I can’t believe my own sister would come with this thievery and anarchy to my door…
Tree and Ree Etienne are laying their mother to rest when an unwelcome arrival at the graveside intrudes on their grief. It’s Bo, their troublesome estranged half-sister. To comfort her sisters Bo moves in for a while and things begin to look up. But can a leopard ever change her spots? Cracks appear as childhood memories, deep resentments and long put away dreams come to the fore. Tensions build before erupting in a confrontation during which harsh truths are said that cannot be unsaid. Will the sisters destroy all that is left of their family and each other?

This thought-provoking and honest new play is written by Chè Walker with songs by Anouskha Lucas (Klook’s Last Stand) and additional songs by Sheila Atim. Set to a contemporary soulful jazz soundtrack, The Etienne Sisters explores what it means to be part of a family today.

The Etienne Sisters
10 September – 3 October 2015

Anita and Me
29 October – 21 November 2015
www.stratfordeast.com

Thursday 17th September 2015

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