Our homes are more than roofs over our heads. Somehow, they absorb the events that went on there, our memories becoming mixed with the mortar, holding together the bricks that make up a family structure. In The Last of the Pelican Daughters, the Pelican children have gathered together to celebrate their departed mother’s birthday in their childhood home, probably for the last time before it is sold. The house is aggressively pink, stacked with records and wine and other ephemera of a careless, iconoclastic life. This is summarised by one beautiful image (spoiler sorry – but the Edinburgh run is over so not that sorry). The entire Wardrobe Ensemble company appear dressed in red dresses taking on the role of the recently deceased matriarch. They laugh on the phone, carry in shopping, hoover, smoke sneaky backdoor cigarettes looking out across an invisible damp lawn, bicker, read and they dance, and they dance. It’s a wonderful portrait of a life as contained within four walls; mother Pelican is gone but her spirit permeates every inch and interaction of this production.
In folklore, mother Pelicans feed their chicks on their own blood. The Pelican sisters seem more like scrappy fledglings, each quite prepared to push each other out of the nest in order to get the most. Second eldest sister Storm (Jesse Meadows) believes that she should get a bigger slice of inheritance due to spending he last two years caring for their mother. The others and their partners understand, of course – in principle, but none are prepared to scrape the cream off the top to compensate her. There is love here but also a lot of ruffled feathers.
The sibling’s characters veer towards stereotypes. There’s the maternal but uptight eldest Joy (Kerry Lovell), the arty rebel middle child (Helena Middleton) and non-conformist youngest in her sandals and Bali beads (Sara Lessore) who comes accessorised with an appropriately terrible backpacker boyfriend Dodo (Ben Vardy). Yet, as cliché as Lessore and Vardy’s travelling anecdotes and hippy chat ( the greeting ‘Dodo checking in with Maia’ is brilliantly, tooth achingly cringe) are, there is a reality here in how we return to our childhood roles as soon as we are back where we grew up, and with the people we grew up with.
The Last of the Pelican Daughters frustrates as it is so nearly utterly wonderful. The Wardrobe Ensemble partnered with Complicité in its creation and their touch is evident. The physical tableaus and routines are gorgeous, the family connection played out in shared steps. You are taken back to imaging a time when the sisters surely must have practiced the family boogie in front of the mirror, a gestural memory easily revisited. There is also a lot of wit. Grandma Pelican being played by a skeleton in a wheelchair voiced by Emily Greenslade standing alongside with a mic could have easily been distasteful. But Wardrobe Ensemble bring us straight in on the joke in a lovely rug-pulling gag during the family meal.
Yet, the narrative teeters on the edge of soap opera extremes. The focus of the plot keeps slipping and too many elements are introduced in the play’s 80-minute duration. Each child gets a moment to play out their connection to their mum, who seems to have been an inspirational free spirit but not always terribly responsible when it came to the actual child rearing. The play touches on the complexity of material and non-physical inheritance but becomes overly bound up in plot. You long to stay longer in the points where we are shown how the familial bonds are stretched and recoil without the need to always explain.
The Last of the Pelican Daughters was on at Pleasance as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info and tickets here.