Sister Cities

Sister Cities
By Colette Freedman. Directed by Suzanne Heywood. Q44 Theatre. Level 1, 550 Swan Street, Richmond. Mar 14 – Apr 3, 2016

Q44 is such a well kept secret that even I am reluctant to talk about them for fear exposure might burst the bubble of excellence in which they exist. But they deserve, and MUST be talked about, because since their inception in 2013, they haven’t put a foot wrong. Their under-budgeted productions of always excellent plays, in the tiny space that is the theatre, are full of passion, commitment, fine acting and a thirst for excellence.

So when I hear that most other theatre critics don’t even acknowledge invitations to review their shows, it makes me angry. Let us not moan and bitch about the overall standard of theatre if we can’t bring ourselves to climb two flights of stairs to a special space above a plumbing fixtures shop. Great theatre isn’t dependent on venue, or comfortable seating, or being “seen” by your peers. It’s about brilliantly adapting circumstances to allow passion and truth and talent to shine beyond the limitations of your means. Q44 knows this…it’s all about the WORK. And their work is impeccable. End of rant.

Colette Freedman’s play of four sisters with the same mother but different fathers (currently being filmed in Hollywood) looks to all the world like another Steel Magnolias in its opening minutes – but looks are deceptive. Despite the “kitch” device of each girl being named after the city where she was born, this is a darker, more confronting piece of work by far. The exploration of siblings dealing with the unexpected, and horrific, death of their mother pulls no punches, and the intimacy of the theatre makes it doubly confronting. When the characters are almost close enough to touch, they have to play the truth. Technique just won’t cut it.

Suzanne Heywood (how lovely to see her on stage again) not only directs with a gentle and generous hand, she plays the dead matriarch, crippled with ALS, in the flashback scene that opens Act 2. Her weakness and vulnerability are beautifully balanced against the strength of her will and sense of purpose, and the relationship between her and daughter Austin (Nicole Melloy) is tangible and palpable – bringing tears to many of the audience.

Melloy herself is quite marvellous as the tomboy lesbian daughter who wrote one hit novel while at college and then burned out. Those who know Melloy for her stunning looks and legs, her dancing and her singing in Musical Theatre, will be amazed at a transformation which sees only her inner beauty shine through. But it’s her acting which makes such a quantum leap in this role. Austin seethes with resentment, with guilt, with resignation, with yearning and confusion – all sublimated behind a maskbecause it has to be. It’s a difficult role, with a lot of emotional beats that need to be perfectly realised. If Melloy was this good on opening night, I am staggered by what she might find inside by the end of the run.

Gabriella Rose Carter – founder of Q44 and a fine director in her own right, is so real as Carolina (she prefers Carol) the over-achieving high-flying lawyer and eldest daughter, that you simply forget you are watching a performance and have to stop yourself from reacting aloud to her comments. Rose-Carter has no self-awareness as an actress, no studied gestures or moves. She IS who she is playing – no doubt a legacy of her years in New York as part of the Lee Strasberg Alumni. It’s stunning to watch the real Carolina being slowly revealed and doing a complete about face on her opinions as she learns the truth. Fine acting indeed.

Sarah Nicolazzo – Dallas – has the least colourful role; but those who saw her in Q44’s Savage in Limbo by John Patrick Shanley will realise the breadth of her talent and the diversity of her range. Her beauty alone makes her compelling to watch and she is excellent as the uptight and prudish school teacher – the daughter with no talent.

Analisa Lucca is Baltimore, the youngest daughter still finding herself, but not looking too hard. This is her first professional role and she’s full of promise. She showed some first night nerves, such as seeing to be waiting for her next line rather than truly LISTENING, but that’s understandable. She is certainly one to watch for the future.

The space allows for configuring in infinite ways, so that it never seems like the same theatre. That helps enormously with the credibility of time/location. Within the confines of the tiny theatre and budget, the set, designed and built by Nicolazzo and the cast (with Jordan Fletcher), works a treat, and the unexpected bathroom is a nice surprise. Settings for Q44’s plays are always a pleasant surprise, but always conventional. That’s not a criticism, but so much work goes into performance that it would be nice to see design think outside the box.  John Collopy’s lighting design works beautifully and is complemented by Jacinta Anderson’s sound. And no opening at Q44 is complete without the Divine Lily Jones’ superb supper; the woman is a culinary Diva.

Lovers of fine theatre really DO need to discover Q44. The critics loss will be your gain.

Coral Drouyn

To keep up with the latest news and reviews at Stage Whispers, click here to like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.