Family matters: Tooth and Sinew’s Year of the Family

Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson, more widely known for The Wonderful World of Dissocia and Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness, was a key component of the ‘in yer face’ theatre movement which flourished in Britain in the 1990s. While the movement was perhaps misnamed – ‘in yer face’ did not so much seek to repel or alienate audiences, but rather explore the boundaries of what could (or couldn’t) be portrayed in a theatre, and to confront and challenge audiences – Neilson’s work still carries the hallmarks of that movement; but now, twenty-odd years later, what might have been deliberately shocking at the time (1994) now seems rather odd and not-quite-as-shocking, although Tooth and Sinew’s production is an assured, handsome, and strangely moving one.

Written in 1994, the UN-proclaimed International Year of the Family, Neilson’s Year of the Family follows the lives of half-sisters Fliss (Nicole Wineberg) and Claire (Brooke Ryan), and their loves and relationships, the lies they tell, and the strange coincidences which bring them slowly together. Claire is seeing Dickie (David Woodland), whilst also keen on Sid (Peter-William Jamieson) who just happens to be Dickie’s son; Fliss meanwhile abducts a homeless man (Brendan Miles) in the belief that he is her long-dead father.
Produced in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre Co. and staged in the Kings Cross Theatre, Ash Bell’s set makes good use of the traverse space, and carpets the floor and wall with hundreds of copies of a photograph of the five characters together. Bell’s costumes are simple but clearly demarcate characters and their social standings, and they are well lit by Liam O’Keefe’s lighting design. Tegan Nicholls’ sound design mixes crescendoing car-crashes with subtler tones and snatches of popular songs, and helps to create an environment where the finer and broader points of a person’s life combine with interesting consequences.
While Neilson’s script may seem to have lost some of its ‘in yer face-ness’ in the two decades since it premiered, director Richard Hilliar brings the punch back to the year of the family, and shows us relationships which aren’t normal or safe, but are in many respects destructive and dangerous, very much dysfunctional. There are some powerful moments here, particularly when the characters confront each other, that feels real – or more real than you would expect to see in the theatre – and Hilliar makes sure this impact is not lost on us by manipulating the lighting and sound to show us the danger present in these relationships.
Neilson’s play is a troubling one, and the characters are indeed troubled, but there are moments of warmth in the playing that shows that not everything is truly as bleak as Neilson might like to make us think. Brendan Miles’ Henry is a touching portrait of confusion and quietly-spoken restraint; Peter-William Jamieson’s Sid is forceful and volatile, but Brooke Ryan’s Claire is more than a match for him; her moments with David Woodland are underplayed with resigned knowledge of an impending ending, and makes her character stronger. Nicole Wineberg’s Fliss, while certainly the lighter character in the play, is perhaps neurotic in the way she uses humour and a slowly-unravelling lie to recreate a childhood she never knew, but there is something moving in the way we learn the truth from Claire, how the whole strange convergence turns out.

What starts out as quite a bleak and miserable play becomes a little lighter at the end, in a perplexing dénouement which is oddly affecting even if its tongue is firmly in its cheek, a deliberate parody of the togetherness the UN aimed to promote during the course of 1994. And even though it is a deliberate parody, it still reaffirms the need for family –whether biological, societal, cultural, or through the simple convergence of sharing a theatre with several dozen others for one-hundred minutes – and shows that maybe the world isn’t so royally screwed as we thought it was. At least, not all the time.

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