It’s fair to say that my younger sister and I had a tempestuous relationship growing up. ‘Stop copying me’, I’d hiss as she adopted all my tastes from my favourite toy to my favourite flavour of crisps. I swear she even copied me in becoming left-handed. ‘She does it because she wants to be like you’, my Mum would say. ‘You should be flattered. When you’re older you’ll be grateful to have a sister.’
Charley Miles’ play Daughterhood focuses on the relationship between sisters Paul (short for Pauline) and Rachel. There is a nine-year age gap between them – ten at some points in the year, Rachel points out – because Rachel was ‘an accident’. In the absence of their mother, Paul stepped in the fill the gap, practically bringing up Rachel and caring for her father when he became ill.
At the start of the play, Pauline (Charlotte Bate) grudgingly welcomes her sister home for a flying visit. Bate, dressed in a drab oversized jumper, is folded in on herself, worn down by disappointment. She has watched her options narrow as her sister claimed the opportunities – education, an exciting career – that she considers rightfully hers. In contrast, Charlotte O’Leary fizzes with energy as Rachel, full of grand schemes to campaign for policy change and optimise their father’s care – easy for her, when she does not have to manage it on a day to day level, as Pauline points out. They have become stuck in the roles assigned to them in jest as children: Pauline as ‘Little Miss Perfect’ and Rachel as ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. Both feel a sense of pressure in the comparison. Both sisters are envious of the other.
The structure of the play teases out how they ended up in this situation through flashbacks rather than moving forwards (it took me an embarrassingly long amount of time to work out that the scenes were not proceeding in chronological order). The play excavates their relationship, slowly revealing why the characters are the way they are. Pauline wants to isolate the moment that she and Rachel had a discussion where they decided that Rachel would take her turn at caring for their dad. The moment they made a contract. The moment when Rachel broke it. However, no matter how hard she tries to grasp it, that moment slips away. Somehow they have slipped into these unbalanced roles, an unbalanced division of labour that has come to seem inevitable and therefore unchangeable. In Daughterhood, caring is shown to have a human cost.
There’s something about Stef O’Driscoll’s production that feels very…Roundabout-y. It feels like I’ve seen it before – from the opening image of Pauline and Rachel staring intensely at each other, to how Toyin Omari-Kinc plays all the incidental, underwritten male parts as caricatures. The space seems to invite a certain form of play – intense two to three-handers – and that can risk appearing formulaic against the plethora of more experimental performances at the fringe.
Nonetheless, Miles’ play rings with emotional truth in capturing the equivocal nature of a sisterly relationship: the antagonism, the silliness, the fierce love (brought out in Pauline’s unexpected virtuosic monologue about a beached whale). My mum was right. Now I’m older, I am grateful for my sister (that may be the first time I’ve admitted it in writing). The ending of Charley Miles’ play reminded me of quite how much.
Daughterhood is on at Roundabout at Summerhall till 25th August. More info here.