Sisters, Seagulls and Sendoffs is a play about ideas; ideas that linger in the mind for hours after the performers leave the stage. One only hopes they continue to linger, because for a play about death and grieving, they are brimming with optimism. Much like their previous show, Over the Garden Fence, Haylo Theatre have used a subject commonly avoided – and often sugar-coated – to make a realistic piece of drama that inspires, among other things, hope.
“Life is made up of so many moments, the wonderfully happy times and incredibly sad, these moments are what life is made of, they are our story.” After these words, Hayley Riley and Louise Evans become their characters: Penny and Beth, respectively. Our protagonists are sisters who are about as different as siblings can be; Penny is comically bubbly and animated, while Beth is more reserved with a drier sense of humour. However, they both share a deep love for their father. When their father suddenly dies, it’s up to them to pick up both the figurative and literal pieces. In creating two contrasting characters, Haylo have cleverly presented two distinct ways of expressing grief.
In one of the key scenes, the two sisters are going through their father’s old things in the family home, deciding what to keep. Penny gets excited about everything she finds, even the items she’s never seen before; she wants to keep everything. This chirpy behaviour grates on Beth, who is visibly suffering and wants to get the whole ordeal out of the way. She aggressively enquires as to why her sister is so happy. It turns out she isn’t; of course, they’re both suffering. It’s common knowledge that people grieve in different ways, but it gives us pause to watch two characters trying to understand each other’s grief – especially of the same person, at the same time.
The set is kept to a minimum, while the clever use of props – in true Haylo fashion – breathes a creative quirkiness to the story. The central setting is the family home, where different items take us to different events in the girls’, and their father’s, life. From their parents’ first meeting on a blind date, to the father’s funeral, to Beth’s wedding – bittersweet due to dad’s absence – we hear a variety of stories. A particularly effective moment is when the sisters receive the unexpected news of their father’s passing. A doctor tells them, but we don’t hear any words. They sit facing the audience, as if we are the ones breaking it to them, and we see the shock and anguish engulf them, almost in slow motion. Beth looks pained and terror-struck, while Penny seems to fall into a numb trance; almost collapsing out of her chair, but for being caught by her sister.
Scenes like this might be difficult to watch for some, especially those for which grief is all too familiar, yet the nature of the whole piece is actually rather comforting. We return to the opening words: “Life is made up of so many moments, the wonderfully happy times and incredibly sad…” A simple but important line in the play is “it’s okay not to feel okay.” We all have our own unique stories. As the sisters tell us: were anyone in the audience to see their dad in the street, we wouldn’t look twice. But to them, he was a huge presence – now a massive gap – in their lives. So while it might seem like we’re suffering alone, it’s a process everyone goes through; just like the wonderfully happy times. And although we’re in pain, although we’re broken – it’s okay.
This was the first public performance of Sisters, Seagulls and Sendoffs, and the setting was perfect. Chester Storyhouse’s Garrett stage is an intimate setting, which seats 150, and on Friday 27th October, Riley and Evans made it work to their full advantage. It would be interesting to see it in a different setting – bigger or smaller – to witness what effects this would have. I hope they take it to Edinburgh, as they did with Over the Garden Fence, to show it to a wider audience.