Sisterly Feelings: World Premiere Reviews

This page contains a selection of reviews from the world premiere production of Alan Ayckbourn's Sisterly Feelings at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 1979. All reviews are the copyright of the respective publication and / or author. Reviews from the London premiere of Sisterly Feelings at the National Theatre can be found here.

Heads Or Tails, A Winning Formula (by Robin Thornber)
"Alan Ayckbourn has gone back to toying with form in his latest comedy, the 26th*, which was given its first performances at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough this week.
Sisterly Feelings was premiered twice because there are four possible developments to the plot, and normally nobody will know which version is going to happen. (This time it was arranged for us to see all four options.) The opening scene is always the same - a wintery family gathering after the funeral of an elderly doctor's wife, on a hilly viewpoint on the local common.
It neatly introduces the family relationship; the doctor's daughters - Abigail (Alison Skilbeck) brittly married to well heeled executive, Patrick (James Bate) and Dorcas (Judy Bridgland) a local radio producer living with a dropped out poet Stafford (Robin Murphy) - their younger brother Melvyn (Robin Bowerman), with his medical exams and his shy fiancée Brenda (Lavinia Bertram), and her brother Simon (Robin Herford) - a hearty sportsman just returned from Africa.
When Patrick storms off to a meeting, leaving too many passengers for the remaining car, the toss of a coin decides which sister will walk home with the bronzed colonial. So Scene 2 - a June picnic at the same spot on the common - can have either of the sisters having an affair with Simon. If it's heads then Abigail gets the man, Dorcas organises the sandwiches and it is Patrick's unexpected rival which disrupts the family reunion. Tails and Dorcas wins, Abigail caters, and Stafford is the intruder at the picnic.
And whichever actress wins the toss can then determine which version of Scene 3 they'll play. When the rain comes at the end of Dorcas's picnic Abigail can choose whether to accept a lift home in Patrick's Mercedes or cycle back with her lover; if it's Abigail's picnic, Dorcas can return to her poet or ride her bike over his prostrate body to stay with Simon.
Ayckbourn's master stroke is to resolve any of these courses of action into the same final scene. A sentimental visit to the common after Mel's wedding to his pregnant Brenda, just as his father had taken his bride there 28 years before.
The wheel has came full circle from death to rebirth, the couples are reunited, and Dorcas utters the play's final, savage irony, "the important thing is for us to feel we make decisions - otherwise it would just be so pointless."
It would be hard to improve on that edge of intimate bitterness in the sisterly rivalry between Abigail and Dorcas - beautifully knowing performances from Alison Skilbeck and Judy Bridgland. Stanley Page's Doctor totters benignly into crankiness as he cured all his patients by telling them to listen to their feet ("none of them came back") and John Arthur's paranoid policeman "locking his hub caps" and Shelagh Stuttle's limp whine as his wife were delightful bonuses.
But the cherry on the cake for me, was Robin Herford's smugly anxious smile as Simon looks back on the two longing sisters - a moment which Mr Ayckbourn echoes with consummate irony."
(The Guardian, 11 January 1979)

Sisterly Feelings is Alan Ayckbourn's 23rd play

Sisterly Feelings (by Eric Shorter)
"To catch every nuance of Alan Ayckbourn's latest play called
Sisterly Feelings you would have to spend perhaps a week at the Stephen Joseph theatre-in-the-round, Scarborough.
After watching two versions of its deliberately flexible central passages, the effort, both on his part and ours, seems mistaken.
Here is an amusing, perceptive and sometimes witty domestic comedy in which the author chooses to leave open every night its emotional direction while taking care to see it starts and finishes in the same way.
It is as if he himself were not convinced what should happen and wrote four (or it is six?)* alternatives. Meanwhile the audience is invited to take its chance on what will happen to the two sisters ion the middle: sitting (if it is keen) through the various permutations or finding itself contented with the one it gets.
Having sat through two, I preferred the second. But I suspect that if Mr Ayckbourn could himself have chosen the best version in the first place the results would have looked more artistically honest, instead of like crafty craftsmanship.
Is he perhaps just trying out those optional middle acts on the dog? They way they go depends on the toss of a coin and the way they went on my two inspections remained predictable since the ending was fixed.
If one of the girls doesn't take up adulterously with the new charmer, then her unmarried sister will. And that's about it, dramatically speaking. Their whims are never really made to matter because the author's plotting of them to fit his theatrical pattern is clear to begin with.
For the underlying idea, and it is buried all evening, is that chance encounters change our lives. It is not explored and the construction of this comedy forbids its exploration.
The people who really have to take a chance are the spectators since the middle sections of the show may change nightly while the title remains the same.
Had my responses not been obfuscated by the Ayckbourn obsession with technique, the characters themselves might have had a deeper impact, since the sisters are drawn with sharp distinction and acted by Allison Skilbeck and Judy Bridgland with feminine determination.
As the object of their uncertain affections Robin Herford hovers about handsomely; and John Arthur as an uncle with a gloomy past in the police also contributes valuably to the evening's light-hearted humour at the expense of English family life and its emotional disciplines.
But I wish the author knew which way he wanted his play to go - or else had settled for a frankly spontaneous ending. He himself directs."
(Daily Telegraph, January 1979)

*There are only four possible combinations of
Sisterly Feelings; mathematically speaking, a choice of two versions of two scenes could never remotely be construed as providing six alternatives! It should also be noted that Eric Shorter completely misinterpreted the intentions of the author. Alan Ayckbourn is not saying "chance encounters change our lives"; given the play ends the same place no matter what chance encounter occurs, it is exploring precisely the opposite idea.

Home Ground (by John Elsom)
"I suspect that Alan Ayckbourn's audiences at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round at Scarborough are more demanding than his London ones. They know his work well and are not going to let him get away with falseness or contrivance. In summer, it may be different: the trippers will come in, who will laugh at anything. But in winter, with snow blocking the roads across the moors, Ayckbourn's plays have to face the severest test of all - of local friends who are not going to pretend that a silly joke is a witty one, or that a far-fetched idea is sensible. Ayckbourn is, sometimes too sensible. He etches in a character with such neat precision that there is too little room for change, surprise or development. His people are what they are, and instantly recognisable; and if they were more complicated, Scarborough would probably complain that Ayckbourn is getting too clever for his own good.
But Ayckbourn is a clever writer. No other dramatist today enjoys the sheer mathematics of writing a play more than he; and this mixture of Yorkshire sense and his own ingenuity lends distinction to what would otherwise be very slight farces. His latest play,
Sisterly Feelings, is an example. It is really four plays which share a prologue and an epilogue. Two sisters, Abigail and Dorcas, have been lending support to their father, Ralph, after their mother's funeral, Ralph takes them and the rest of his immediate family to a corner of the local Pendon Common where they used to have picnics. It is a nostalgia trip, boring for everybody except Ralph; and Abigail and Dorcas are prone to be bored anyway.
Abigail is married to a very successful young businessman, Patrick, who sets time limits on nostalgia and doesn't want the mud to ruin his expensive shoes. Dorcas is sort of attached to an unprepossessing left-wing writer, Stafford, who does not want to fit in with anything or anyone who could upset his ideals; and both sisters are irritated by the shy girl, Brenda, whom their brother, Melvyn, has unaccountably picked up. Their only diversion is Brenda's brother, Simon, slim, tanned from a stay in Africa and bouncily boyish. Simon is fanciable and they both fancy him; and when two members of the party have to walk back from Pendon Common, one of whom will be Simon, the sisters toss a coin to see who will accompany him.
On what Ayckbourn calls a 'free' evening, the tossed coin at the end of the prologue actually does decide which sister takes advantage of this opportunity to chat up Simon; with the relationships accordingly developing along different lines. There is a similar chance decision at the end of the second scene; so that there are four possible permutations on the basic story. I saw only one of these, Abigail; but I can imagine how, as with
The Norman Conquests, the enjoyment builds up from play to play, until you become hooked on the various possibilities of these lives and the role sheer luck plays in altering them. If you do see them all, then the last scene must be a delight, for the lines remain the same but their meanings are twisted around in all directions, providing one of Ayckbourn's truly original coups de theatre.
Even one play is very good fun; and Abigail has two classic Ayckbourn scenes - a picnic where everything goes wrong, which is similar to the dinner in
Table Manners, and a night under canvas where Abigail strips for freedom while Simon tries to behave like a competent boy scout. The Scarborough company has such an excellent understanding of what Ayckbourn wants that it would be sad to see any of them replaced for a star-studded West End or National Theatre version. Robin Herford's Simon is gawky and deferential, with a teeth-spattered smile which can freeze instantly to alarm; while Alison Skilbeck's Abigail is exactly the kind of attractive, exploring wife whom only wise or incapable men avoid at parties.
Sisterly Feelings is touring abroad, before returning to Scarborough in the summer. London will have to wait for a few more months to see it, making do with another Ayckbourn play, Joking Apart, which will reach us shortly."
(The Spectator, 15 February 1979)

Ayckbourn Does It Again - And Again
"New readers start here: Alan Ayckbourn, director of productions of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round at Westwood, Scarborough, and the most successful playwright, commercially, in the Western world, has written a new comedy,
Sisterly Feelings, and directed its production at the Westwood theatre. At its first night, on Wednesday, the audience was delighted - but the play has two scripts, called Dorcas and Abigail, after the main character sisters, and the middle action of the play can vary depending first on the toss of a coin and subsequently on the preference of the players. As revealed yesterday, normally whether Dorcas or Abigail is the principal character will depend on pure chance, but the company worked a fiddle on Wednesday and last night so that reviewers could be sure of seeing a Dorcas and an Abigail version. Now read on....
It was Dorcas's turn to get the man last night, for that is really what the whole affair is about.
Either confident, sexy, married Abigail or more mundane, lame-dog-collector Dorcas gets for a time the amorous attentions of bachelor, outdoor, cross-country-running type Simon. The development then is how the woman gets him out of her system and returns to her husband, in Abigail's case, or relationship with helpless, would-be poet.
The first and last of the play's four scenes are constant whatever happens in the middle. The second scene is a picnic run by whichever is the non-Simon-possessing sister. The third scene is either a night in a tent on the common which is designer Jeremy Turner's remarkable setting of the entire play or a cross-country championship, with Simon competing.
So on Wednesday we got Dorcas's picnic and a sexy night on the common, and last night we got Abigail's picnic and the cross-country run. We still could get Dorcas's picnic and a cross-country run and Abigail's picnic and a night under canvas, but they will not be quite the same run and night.
Are you still with me? Well, it really does not matter. The two versions so far presented are each a jolly good romp, and there is every reason to expect that the other two versions will be, too.
The important thing is that it would be worth the cost of going to the theatre again, and perhaps again, in the hope of seeing a variation, because there is considerable differences in them, even though they come to the same end - an anti-climatic end, actually, though it contains Ayckbourn's point of whether the woman in the case made a decision or merely deluded herself that she had.
For my money, Dorcas's picnic plus the night on the common are the better choice of the two presented. Her picnic is a real slapstick joy; Abigail's picnic is a joy, but not quite such a riot, not having so much variety in the picnic provisions and equipment to create confusions.
But it was obvious from audience conversations that preference for the choices differed. The unanimity was that in either case Ayckbourn had pulled it off again.
Abigail seems certain, though, to be the more popular choice. She is anyway a more biting, wicked, comically successful character than sister Dorcas, but, above all, there is more point in the impact of Simon on the marriage than in the impact on the odd relationship in which Dorcas is involved. Mr Ayckbourn needs to make either Dorcas's lame-doggery more striking or her particular lame dog someone we can care more about.
Surrounding the sisters' comings and goings with Simon are relationships with other members of the family. "Surrounding" may not be quite the right word, for it may well prove that the alarm-and-despondency-spreading policeman uncle will be the star of what Mr Ayckbourn calls his "related comedy". It may very well if the role is played as it is at Westwood by John Arthur; one welcomes his every plod onto the common.
Abigail, Dorcas, and Simon are superbly played by, respectively, Alison Skilbeck, Judy Bridgland, and Robin Herford. They are supported uproariously by Stanley Page, Robin Bowerman; Shelagh Stuttle, James Bate, Lavinia Bertram, Robin Murphy, and Christopher Gray.
If you like some two hours of tittering, laughing, and belly-laughing you should support them all with your presence - more than once."
(Scarborough Evening News, 12 January 1979)

Toss Of The Coin (by Robert Cushman)
"Alan Ayckbourn's
Sisterly Feelings (Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough) is at base a play in four scenes. However there are complications.
Mr Ayckbourn has written alternative versions of the second and third scenes, or rather he has written one alternate version of each. However, either variant of Scene Two is playable with either version of Scene Three. The play can be seen four times, with the spectator getting a different show on each occasion. I hope this is clear.
I went twice, which allowed me to collect the entire text while missing out on some of the juggling. I gather that the arrangements I saw are referred to among the Scarborough players as 'the Abigail Play' and 'the Dorcas play.' Abigail and Dorcas are the sisters with whose feelings we are concerned, and though Abigail is a housewife and Dorcas works in local radio (producer of two half hour shows a week) they bear more than a passing resemblance to Goneril and Regan.
They have a ga-ga dad, and no mother: in fact they are on their way back from her funeral when we first meet them. Above all there is a young man whom they both fancy, though unlike Shakespeare's Edmund he is no sense a bastard. He is Simon, their brother's girl-friend's brother, a clean-limbed young man and also chivalrous.
At the end of Scene One there is some question as to with which of the two he will walk home. In the end the matter is decided by the toss of a coin and that toss (which incidentally is left to chance in performance) decides the content of the second scene. For the walk home is the prelude to an affair.
Scene Two, whatever happens, is a picnic, and the feasters are the same either way, but their relationships obviously differ. The end of this scene provides another moment of choice that determines the nature of Scene Three; Simon may either be having it off with the same flame or with her rival. That Scene Four should be exactly the same, whatever has happened, is of course its own ironic comment. Abigail and Dorcas may pride themselves on their dissimilarities, but nobody else can notice any; to their despised future sister-in-law, for example, they are both 'hopelessly neurotic and out of touch.'
The one crucial difference between them is that Abigail is married; and since Mr Ayckbourn sees his people less in terms of character than in terms of domestic circumstance this is more than enough to justify his peculiar strategy. That the Abigail play works the better of the two is a tribute to the old-fashioned rules both social and dramatic. Much depends, of course, on the quality of the cuckold. Here Abigail is in luck; her husband Patrick is an exemplary mixture of cynicism and complaisance. Professing complete tolerance of his wife's activities, he so contrives, with the utmost politeness, to make her life an embarrassment, while Simon, despite the obvious need for discretion, comes close to duffing him up. He is, besides, most incisively characterised as a man besotted with his job, his house and his car, particularly when they involve mechanical extras.
By contrast, Stafford, the gentleman whom Dorcas betrays ('Dorcas's thing,' her father calls him), is a stereotype of the half-baked far Left intellectual already worked over (to rather better purpose) in Mr Ayckbourn's
Ten Times Table. His jealousy takes far less inventive turns than Patrick's. Scene Three offers a choice of Abigail and Simon going camping, or Dorcas officiating at a cross-country race with Simon one of the favourites. Again Abigail offers the playgoer a better deal: acute situation comedy as opposed to overworked farce.
All scenes take place in 'a remote corner of Pendon Common.' Pendon was also the scene of
Ten Times Table and I suspect Mr Ayckbourn thinks of it as home, I wish Mr Ayckbourn had allowed his heroines one head-on collision, rather than confining them to polite fencing with undertones, but overall his 'related comedy' is excellent value. As usual, the author's production offers resonances generally inaudible in London where, with rare exceptions, star casting has obscured his characters' unblinking ordinariness.
At Scarborough the audience take up where the play leaves off and they are in no way patronised. After all, they get better new work, on a regular basis, than can be found at any other regional theatre, in perfectly judged productions. Alison Skilbeck's Abigail, James Bate's Patrick and Robin Herford's Simon are splendidly recognisable."
(The Observer, 4 February 1979)

All reviews are copyright of the respective publication.