Me and My Sister Tell Each Other Everything, written by Uther Dean, is the story of two sisters, Jos (Maria Williams) and Murph (Freya Daly Sadgrove), and how each deals with her and her sister’s experiences with mental illness. It’s a subject that’s treated with respect, but not handled with kid gloves: the show starts with a self-aware trigger warning about the show’s explicit and graphic depiction and discussion of suicide and mental illness. From then on, Dean’s honest and thoughtful writing highlights the contrasts between Murph’s and Jos’ experiences. Murph is honest with her sister about her mental health struggles, frightfully so at times, going as far to confess that she plans to take her own life. Jos spends the narrative striving for an unattainable perfection, and eventually confides in Murph about how nothing she does makes her happy. Dean uses a recurring narrative about a dollhouse Jos once owned that she didn’t want her sister playing with to reintroduce this contrast and to highlight what each sister is struggling to find: Jos’ fascination with perfection and Murph’s fascination with happiness meet the microscope here first before they’re brought out of the display case in other scenes. Both experiences are complex, both experiences are valid, and it is an effective way to show that mental illness isn’t just one thing or one feeling. Me and My Sister doesn’t want you to focus on the act of suicide. Instead, it wants you to inspect and consider what exists around it, the ways different people cope with mental illness, and how mental illness affects different people.
Maria Williams and Freya Daly Sadgrove are perfection in their respective roles of Jos and Murph, and it boils down to their sometimes volatile and sometimes calm stage chemistry. Williams expertly embodies the bossy, poised, and utopia-seeking Jos, and so it’s only natural that Sadgrove’s casual, IDGAF Murph generates such ire. The first time they’re out for coffee after a big fight, the difference is obvious. Williams sits straight, hands clasped, feet together, and maintains eye contact with whomever she speaks. Sadgrove slouches in her seat, spending her time staring at the ground, making it clear she didn’t really want to be there. Williams and Sadgrove feel like siblings with how they banter and bicker. They act like siblings when they fight over silly things like using each others’ deodorant, and then come together when they really need one another, when the finally share how they are really feeling. Their reconciliation comes in this one beautiful moment surrounded by horrifying realities. It’s only through how Williams and Sadgrove support each other as performers that they earn this real sisterly bond. Me and My Sister would not be the same without them.
The conversational scenes between Williams and Sadgrove remind me that when we communicate with someone else, we don’t really communicate with them, we often communicate at them instead. Me and My Sister brings this idea to the forefront with its direct address convention, where a character will reveal a microphone and speak directly to their audience with it, always beginning with the words “I remember when…”. What attracts me the most about these moments is not only how they show Jos and Murph failing to listen and communicate with one another, but also how whenever Murph does so, she often talks about Jos, and whenever Jos speaks to us, she often talks about Murph. It’s almost as if they require us as a medium to communicate with their sibling. The first instance is particularly hilarious, watching Sadgrove turn from her scene partner after nodding nonchalantly in disinterest, and start to reminisce with us instead of her sister. The microphones help to fade the small talk into the background, making the memories purposefully louder. But at the same time, I feel an uncanny sadness whenever these moments occur—they would rather speak to us, people voyeuristically engaging with their lives, than family. As Murph notes, “no one ever hears you when you say you love them… not really”.
Oliver Devlin’s excellent sound/music design and Zoë Higgins’ eerie lighting amplify Me and My Sister even further. Each helps the audience travel to and between the different worlds in the play, from the dollhouse memory to the narrative itself, and each helps evoke a series of emotions from the audience. The warm yet clinical white light wash dissipates when we’re watching the dollhouse memories, where soft, violet light floats down to the two chairs on stage. An otherworldly voice-over rests on top of the empty stage, creating a memory both sinister and poetic that perfectly sets the unease and confusion Jos and Murph experience throughout the show. It’s disassociating, and truly makes the experience feel separate, different, and even reflective. There’s original music in the production as well, sung by Sadgrove in character; the lyrics help the audience to create pictures about how Murph is feeling. It’s not until we revisit these later that we realise she’s been reaching out to us about her feelings and illness long before we see it firsthand, even though she’s singing about the clasp and glass around her heart, and bloodcurdling, self-hatred-induced “fuck yous” that only get louder and louder. It reintegrates the core idea that no one listens, not really.
The magnificently-crafted script is raw and unapologetic, the performers are incredibly talented and charismatic, and the sound and lighting design is perfectly ambient. My Accomplice and their team have truly outdone themselves with Me and My Sister Tell Each Other Everything. I did a lot of thinking as I left BATS, about my place in this narrative and about my experiences with mental illness, whether that’s personal or of the people around me. I think Dean and his team want this from their audiences. I think they want to challenge our awareness, be that self-awareness or an awareness of others. But most all, I think they want to tell us it’s time to listen. No, for real this time.
Me and My Sister Tell Each Other Everything is currently showing at BATS Theatre until Saturday 23 September. For ticketing information, please visit the BATS Theatre website.