Tea and Two Sugars

Crystal Williams and Rachel Isbister
Two Time Theatre Company and 53TwoFOUNDation
53two, Manchester
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The stage layout for Tea and Two Sugars at 53two is such that the audience enters the theatre through the set—a substantial and convincing recreation of a living room. No corners have been cut here.

Twenty-five-year-old Hannah (Rachel Isbister who co-wrote the play with her co-star) has a good life. She may finally have found someone who could be more than just a boyfriend and publishers are expressing interest in her novel. The only irritant in her life is her teenage sister Izzy (co-author Crystal Williams) who has a brittle relationship with their mother and tends to regard Hannah’s flat and clothes as her own. But when Hannah is diagnosed with cervical cancer, Izzy finds she has to mature quickly to offer the support her sister needs.

Tea and Two Sugars is intended to promote debate and raise awareness and sets out to do so in an understated manner. Early scenes point out how easily the symptoms of cervical cancer can be overlooked and emphasise the importance of taking any tests as soon as they become available. The authors, however, lack the resources to fully realise their ambitions and have to concentrate on the emotional impact of Hannah’s illness. The physical aspects (such as mental strain and exhaustion) of caring for someone with a debilitating illness that erode sympathy for the patient are not addressed. As a result, some aspects of Tea and Two Sugars—such as the way it jumps from Hannah’s diagnosis to her final days—feel sketchy.

Director Chloe Patricia Beale sets a light tone for what is, after all, a grim subject. The relationship between the sisters is realistically testy but with a strong affection underneath. The pace is leisurely and, as switching costumes stretches out the length of the frequent scene changes, a brisker approach might be advisable.

Crystal Williams makes an excellent teenager. Self-obsessed, fixated on trivia, fidgety and unable to stop talking for a second, she embodies the joy of life and makes it believable that the irrepressible Izzy could help Hannah cope with her illness. Rachel Isbister takes a dignified approach to Hannah whose response to her diagnosis is to become defensive and cut herself off from other people. It is a credible interpretation and avoids cheap sentiment while also allowing for a touching reconciliation between the sisters.

Although the primary purpose of Tea and Two Sugars might be educational, Williams and Isbister avoid a lecture and give us a moving play with charm and a surprisingly light tone.

Reviewer: David Cunningham