It would be doing Sometimes I Laugh Like My Sister a disservice to describe it as ‘courageous’. In other circumstances, that would probably be a fairly obvious adjective for an autobiographical one-woman show in which the performer recounts the murder of her own sister and its traumatic aftermath. And yet, because this is such an open, honest and intimate piece of storytelling, calling it ‘courageous’ seems merely patronising – and, more pertinently, not at all in the unsentimental and often acerbic spirit of the show itself.
Rebecca Peyton’s sister Kate was, until her death in 2005, a journalist with the BBC. Based in Johannesburg, her ‘patch’ was Africa. She was a news producer, rather than a face-to-camera correspondent, but her commitment to the job had been called into question after she’d twice refused a posting to Iraq. Under pressure, she agreed – with four and a half days’ notice – to go to Somalia instead. At the time, rival warlords were fighting for control of the capital Mogadishu, making Somalia a particularly dangerous assignment. Not long after her arrival, a gunman from one of the warring factions shot Kate in the back.
Peyton recounts the circumstances of this murder in a devastating deadpan, but the events which happened afterwards are the main focus: the ripple effect of loss in her own life; the reaction of family, friends and colleagues; the legal ramifications of the inquest; her determination that the funeral will do her sister’s memory justice. She makes no bones about her ‘spectacularly inappropriate’ behaviour: telling her brother Charlie that Kate’s been killed by shouting ‘She’s dead’ in the middle of Charing Cross Road Library; her excitement at meeting Fergal Keane (one of her sister’s more famous and telegenic colleagues); talking openly about death at dinner parties; drunkenly trying to wheedle her way back into a club on her birthday by revealing to the bouncer that her sister’s been murdered (this kind of emotional blackmail works more effectively with East London plumbers, she notes).
Hesitant and almost anti-theatrical to start with, the narrative switches back and forth, punctuated with smiles, pauses, sips of water. What’s going on here, though, is a subtle accumulation of details – a South African pool attendant wondering when she’s going to be paid and by whom, a neighbour delivering a shepherd’s pie to the mourning family, the arrival of a suitcase full of Kate’s clothes, including those she was wearing when she was shot – and these all serve, in a closely observed and occasionally mordantly funny script, to illuminate the unspoken emotions which surround them. Gusting through the silences are grief, love, anger, resentment – and the slightly uncomfortable exhilaration which comes from realising that you, at least, are still alive.
On another level, though, this is also a political piece – in the sense that it acts as a reminder of the value of every individual life in a world where, on the one hand, warlords are engaged in deadly feuds and, on the other, people are pressurised into taking enormous risks just to hold onto their careers. Peyton is careful to point out that Kate’s life was no more nor less valuable than anyone else’s.
She’s also careful not to blame the BBC, but her frustration at the refusal of her sister’s colleagues to speak out about the dangers inherent in ‘parachute journalism’ is palpable. Each performance is dedicated to journalists who have died whilst doing their job (in this instance, it’s Honduran reporter Hector Francisco Medina, murdered on 13th May this year): it’s a salutary reminder that Kate Peyton’s story is far from unique.
Sometimes I Laugh Like My Sister will also play at the Burrell Theatre, Truro, on the 23rd May 2011.