Alexandra Wood’s The Tyler Sisters is a bit of a puzzle to me. With Little Women (2019), Greta Gerwig’s deft take on a sisterly story continuing to perform well at the box office internationally, and Inua Ellams’ Nigerian-set Three Sisters crushing it at the National, the timing should be ideal for an original story of the thorny bond between sisters over forty years. It’s sadly not as simple as that – I spend most of The Tyler Sisters waiting for a vitality which didn’t quite arrive.
We’re witness to an avalanche of years, beginning in 1990 and ending in 2030. When we begin, Maddie, the oldest, is twenty years old, Gail is eighteen, and Katrina is the youngest at sixteen. As Gail and Katrina respectively, Bryony Hannah and Angela Griffin pick over each other’s phrasing endlessly, sniping and sarcastic; Caroline Faber’s Maddie is gentler and calm-voiced. Quickly, we’re fully submerged in the big and small things a family fights and laughs over. Incidents, arguments, and occasions are shown to stand in for a year’s worth of life – sometimes all we see’s a conversation while watching a rugby game, or a joint ignoring of a film. Only one year doesn’t feature all three sisters.
Firm information on the characters’ lives is often retroactively filled in for us; relationships and hardships pass in and out of mention between years. We feel their impressions, even if not referenced by the characters again: Katrina’s early loss of a best friend is only given another nod towards the very end of a play, but we still see it in her.
The three actors sell the texture of these sisters’ histories with each other with performances of strength and sincerity. When Gail is wronged by a partner, Griffin’s Katrina shows some of her teenage fervour again: she furiously proposes slashing this partner’s tyres, no, all of his property, and more and more outlandishly drastic measures. “I’ve got a whole list,” she promises, and how much she loves her sister is shining out of her face. As Maddie, the first to marry and have children and the most unassuming, Faber gradually becomes physically smaller, worn and distracted. Worrying about money, as the other two don’t, takes its toll.
The weight of this money-worry on Maddie almost dominates the play, but eventually doesn’t. There is no one moment in which Wood’s hand is revealed, or in which a conflict is shown to be the definitive one; all the moments are revealing, are equally as important as each other. You can’t impose a single theme upon a real life, and Wood wants us to feel Katrina, Gail and Maddie’s lives as recognisably real, as complex and resisting of simplification as our own.
But I don’t think we can help looking for a point to this cascading of years upon years, for a slight heightening of the stakes – I don’t think that’s wrong of us, either. Is it enough to be simply presented with an example of the longest relationships most of us will experience in our lives? The Tyler Sisters is a great and naturalistic glance at the ways people change and don’t, but isn’t distinctive or bold enough to form a lasting memory, or to keep you on your toes.
Abigail Graham’s production doesn’t solve this problem, though we have the fun of a karaoke scene (a current theatrical staple) and some rollerskating courtesy of Hannah as Gail. But while it makes sense to see Maddie’s reaction to Gail’s sexuality affect their relationship over years, her initial physical response – scooting to the extreme edge of the steps they’re perched on together, away from her – can’t help but read slightly comically. Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s design places the actors in a long, shallow and empty blue space, rattling around like figures positioned within a blank plastic floor of a doll’s house. It’s a little too anonymous, despite the glow in the dark stars. Years tick by on a small screen for us, sometimes unnecessarily explaining the location of the characters, too. Jon McLeod’s sound design bring us the brief, gradually elongating brush of strings over transitions, but for the most part, the three actors are everything.
The sisters’ pain, grief and hurt are treated with real respect and given room to be felt: 2013, set to Lorde’s ‘Royals’, sees sad sandwiches being made in a near-silent scene not unlike one in the film Pride. For me, Wood’s choice to show us these characters – still bickering, still loving, still surviving – in years following our own, all the way until 2030, felt both confident and at the same time safe. It seemed to demonstrate a kind of middle class optimism and comfortable stock in the future: that nothing will change substantially, that these lives can continue without serious external, political interruption. Paired with an ending which, while truthful, does feel a bit complacent, and contained within an increasingly unsurprising though delicately observed play, The Tyler Sisters lets me get away with feeling not very much at all.
The Tyler Sisters is on at Hampstead Theatre till 18th January. More info here.