Created by Matthew Bulgo, Jonnie Riordan and Jess Williams, written by Matthew Bulgo with music by The Staves
ThickSkin and Lawrence Batley Theatre with Watford Palace Theatre and Wales Millennium Centre
The Lowry, Salford
'Blood harmony' is an English expression for the sound made when siblings sing together. Thankfully, the chemistry between the cast of Blood Harmony is such they convince as squabbling sisters, and all can carry a tune.
Sisters Anna (Philippa Hogg), Maia (Keshini Misha) and Chloe (Eve de Leon Allen) have drifted apart over the years. Anna, ambitious and forceful, has emigrated possibly as a means of escaping her humble origins as much as to further her career. Under-achiever Maia leads a shambolic life and returns to the family home only when funds are low and she needs regular meals and a roof over her head. Although the youngest, Chloe, adopted a maternal role taking care of their ailing mother whose passing forces the sisters to reunite causing secrets, resentments and tensions to rise to the surface.
Blood Harmony is an intimate play in which the drama is understated. Sensationalism is avoided; there are no surprise revelations about incest or legitimacy and the emotional impact of the play emerges from the highly personal nature of the plot and the friction between the characters. A reluctance to use a sofa is eventually explained as being the location where the mother’s body was found.
The trio who conceived the play are hyphenates—Matthew Bulgo wrote the script, while Jonnie Riordan and Jess Williams also co-direct and co-choreograph. As this is a play with music, inevitably the style on occasion becomes larger than life with the cast expressing their feelings in song. Yet the atmosphere, when the characters converse, is relaxed and natural with voices overlapping in a convincing manner. The sisters are of different races, which gives a visual hint of the bohemian lifestyle of their late mother.
The choreography is more stylised movements than formal dancing, the cast striding in sequence around the stage or adopting uniform gestures. The passing of the funeral cortege is captured by simple head movements of the cast.
Blood Harmony is a play with music in that, although it features songs, they do not advance the plot as in a musical but serve to express the inner musings of the characters or to underline their resentments and doubts. The songs are written by folk trio The Staves but the vocals are performed live by the cast who sing both solo and in harmony. The music is generally gentle piano and guitar, except, tellingly, when Eve de Leon Allen articulates Chloe’s resentments in "Damn It All" and percussion and pipes break out.
The acting is of a high standard with a cast capable of finding the humanity in their characters and undermining any melodrama with welcome bursts of humour. Philippa Hogg’s judgmental and condescending Anna could be unbearable without the actor pushing to such comic extremes; at times, her outrage resembles Basil Fawlty. Keshini Misha is very much the bolshie middle child, despite her mature years continuing to act up and demand attention. Eve de Leon Allen balances Chloe’s grief against her understandable resentment at having had little sibling support caring for their mother and a need to find a purpose now her primary role has gone.
This is a high-class production and, although staged in The Lowry’s Studio theatre, would be at home in their larger mid-sized Quays Theatre. Hayley Grindle’s stunning set is completely convincing as a messy attic but also highly adaptable. The wooden slats in the roof serve as a climbing frame and neon bars appear suddenly to enclose the cast or give them something physical against which to push to represent their internal struggle.
Although the subject matter of Blood Harmony is personal and the drama understated, the staging of the play is unusual and ambitious resulting in a completely satisfying production.
Reviewer: David Cunningham