My Sister In This House by Wendy Kesselman directed by Illona Linthwaite at The Greenwich Playhouse to Feb 3rd 2008 Cornelia at 17:53 on 18 January 2008
Alison Light’s recent book, 'Mrs Woolf and the Servants', showed how live-in help can be a mixed blessing. Illona Linthwaite’s excellent revival of 'My Sister in This House' is closer in tone to Jean Genet’s 'The Maids' (1948), both based on the real-life murder in France of a mother and daughter by sisters in 1933. Kesselman’s award-winning 1981 version shows how social division, religious guilt and a claustrophobic ambience can converge to produce fatal results.
Shy, clumsy Lea and her capable older sister Christine work for social-climber Madame Danzard who has a daughter, Isabelle. Isabelle takes a liking to Lea whilst her domineering mother, impressed by the sewing and cooking talents of the older girl, congratulates herself on gaining an edge in her competitive social circle. Glad to escape a greedy mother who forced Christine to give up her religious vocation, the sisters save for a future life together.
The growing intensity of the sisters’ relationship over the years leads to increasing neglect of domestic tasks. As Isabelle prepares for her impending marriage Christine fears her sister may leave and when her employer discovers the sexual nature of the sisters’ relationship, loses control.
Clever use of staging and lighting underline social divisions between the space where the haughty mother inspects food served from silver salvers or supervises her daughter’s beadwork and the servant’s quarters where Christine savagely chops potatoes or nestles with Lea in their narrow bed. Between scenes of daily life a menacing clock ticks away the hours whilst a prolonged period of bad weather - ‘I wonder of it will rain for three months, like last year,’ complains Madame - keeps the women indoors.
Attention to period details underlines the stresses imposed by the women’s claustrophobic lives. Within their bizarre existence a wall of silence is maintained between the two pairs.
Recurring reference to a potentially violent outcome is blended with the action, as in the story of a gypsy’s statement that the sisters were ‘bound by blood’ , Christine’s tugging at the younger girl’s hair when reminded of her mother’s preference for her and most effectively in the bed-room tumble where they become entwined in skeins of red wool.
Dialogue effectively conveys the hesitant speech of the servants and the confident pronouncements of Madam Danzard. Resounding voice-overs at the beginning and end add to dramatic effect. Speech is liveliest in the bedroom scenes where the sisters revisit childhood memories, dressing up and acting out incidents such the one where Christine uses an apron to simulate a nun’s head-dress as a precursor to the sisters engaging in their first sexual embrace.
Costumes play an important role. When Lea crosses the stage in a red sweater over her black maid’s dress it signals a change in the relationship between the two mini-households. Isabelle’s satin dress and Madame Danzard’s fur coat worn for neighbourhood visits emphasise their social standing whilst Christine’s failure to make a straight hem on a dress for Isabelle is an excuse for Madame Danzard to scold her.
The acting of the four recent graduates from the Drama Studio London is uniformly convincing. Tuyen Do as the put-upon Lea uses expressive facial expression and body language to suggest the childlike dependency of the character and her voice effectively expresses the wistfulness of hopes and dreams.
Silvana Montoya as Christine breathes efficiency and watchfulness and is an uneasy presence, although lacking menace. Romilly Turner has the height and elegance to carry off the snooty Madam Danzard, adding depth with her childlike glee at cards, or a tinge of wistful nostalgia when dancing to a radio tune.
Alexandra Burgess is too attractive for the part of the daughter whose impending marriage may rest more on hope than reality. With a dowdy hairstyle and shapeless 1930s dress, however, she conveys a sense of calculated obedience and a convincing relish for stolen sweetmeats.
Lighter than the recently staged Hedda Gabler at the same venue, this play also benefits from the intimacy of the studio space at The Greenwich Playhouse. Music is used to good effect to lift the atmosphere, making the impact of the final scene all the more intense and shocking. A world away from the P.G. Wodehouse’s 'Jeeves and Wooster', 'My Sister In The House' demonstrates, among other things, the benefits of getting out more.