There are various problems with families. First, they know each other too well, and second, on the whole, they can never get away from each other. Any resentments or feuds can go on for years, often simmering under the surface until someone lights the blue touchpaper – usually at a family function – and then the fireworks start A theme picked up in fine style by Beth Steel in their new play Till the Stars Come Down which has recently opened at the Dorfman Theatre.
Sylvia (Sinéad Matthews) is getting married today. She is marrying Marek (Marc Wootton), a Polish immigrant who came to the UK with virtually nothing and now owns his own business. and it’s all hands on deck to get her ready for the big day. The family is rallying around with Sylvia’s two older sisters Hazel (Lucy Black) and Maggie (Lisa McGrilis) on hand with Hazel’s daughters – fourteen-year-old Leanne (Ruby Stokes) and young flower girl (Bodhi Rae Breathnach, Maggie Livermore, or Cadence Williams) to turn Sylvia from youngest sister to blushing bride. This is the first time the three sisters have been together in their dad Tony’s (Alan Williams) home since Maggie upped sticks and suddenly moved away from the town without telling anyone why. Still, this is no time for worrying about things, especially when surrogate mum Aunty Carol (Lorraine Ashbourne) arrives and ramps the preparations up a notch in her own inimitable way. As the party gets ready to move to the church, Hazel stops worrying about her situation and her unemployed husband John (Derek Riddell), Maggie ignores what drove her away from the family and Tony stops thinking about repairing his relationship with his brother, and Carol’s husband, Pete (Philip Whitchurch) because today is Sylvia and Malek’s day. And it’s going to be a day of hope, joy and celebration and nothing is going to wreck it.
This is the first production I’ve seen from writer Beth Steel, but they really know how to write believable and realistic characters and scenarios. Coming from a northern working-class family, Till the Stars Come Down, really brought back memories of family Do’s – there was even the cheese and pineapple hedgehog that always graced a family buffet. And true to form, at some point in every gathering, some old grievance would be aired and, as one of the characters says, it wouldn’t be a wedding if it didn’t kick off at some point. The resonance with the story translated into a familiarity with the characters – especially Aunty Carol who immediately brought back memories of two of my aunts and what they used to be like whenever I saw them. In fact, I could pretty much look at every character in the show and link them to someone in my family or the group of family friends that always turned up at these events. So overall, this was a play that immediately sat well with me.
Some truly brilliant elements in the story really got to me. Most revolved around the three sisters and Aunty Carol – this is a very feminine play – but there were moments, like the wedding speeches and the ‘Tarzan’ sequence that are simply exquisite to experience. And much of this is thanks to the wonderful cast. Each of them brings something unique to their character. Sinéad Matthews takes Sylvia from a very reticent quiet thing to a woman, fully able to take on her family and defend her husband from them in fine style. Likewise, Hazel undergoes so many emotional roller-coaster moments and Lucy Black ensures the audience experience them with her. And then there is Maggie, a woman with a secret that is tearing her up inside but which, should it come out, will change things forever. Lisa McGrilis keeps the character on her toes, making sure the suppressed emotions are just simmering under the surface as she tries to make the most of a bad job. Separately, the three actors are impressive but when together, the three join in a sisterhood that is a force to be reckoned with – again reminding me so much of my old aunts – and who you wouldn’t want to cross. They are the family, and family always comes first – until it no longer can.
I know I’ve concentrated on the sisters, and that makes sense, but all the actors are superb bringing this northern working-class family, with all its gladness and sadness, to life in so many ways. And of course, I must mention Lorraine Ashbourne’s Aunty Carol. Carol gets most of the best comedic lines and, thanks to Ashbourne’s skilful and timely delivery of them, most of the laughs. Think of anyone you know that has no filters and says what they are thinking, double it and then you are getting close to Aunty Carol’s level.
Director Bijan Sheibani and Set Designer Samal Blak have kept things simple with the staging. A large football pitch green square with an embedded circular light and a Mirrorball hanging above, the audience positioned on all four sides puts the family at the heart of the story at all times and creates a space that hints at the competition that occurs within the family and with the wider world, as well as making a superb and practical performance area that is used to great effect. I especially loved the almost magical ending of Act I which mirrored something that occurred at the last family get-together I attended.
All told, I thought Till the Stars Come Down was a truly fascinating and entertaining show. The people, language and attitudes of a close-knit working-class family living in a dying town are brilliantly observed, written, and performed. The overall story is in some ways quite a standard one but with some major league surprises on the way. The only minor issue was with the under-developed time halting ability/dream which I think could have been used more. Thinking back now, I’ve realised that, while there are a lot of villains and some nasty bigots portrayed, I sort of liked them all and without agreeing with them, could accept them for who they are, and if that’s not the definition of family, then what is?
Review by Terry Eastham
Everyone loves a wedding…
It’s Sylvia and Marek’s wedding and you are all invited.
Over the course of a hot summer’s day, a family gathers to welcome a newcomer into their midst. But as the vodka flows and dances are shared, passions boil over and the limits of love are tested.
What happens when the happiest day of your life opens the door to a new, frightening and uncertain future?
National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX