Theatre reviews: Sister Radio | The Comedy of Errors

Lanna Joffrey and Nalan Burgess deliver passionate, poignant performances as two Iranian sisters who have spent decades living together in angry silence, writes Joyce McMillan

Lanna Joffrey as Fatemeh and Nalân Burgess as Shirin in Sister Radio PIC: Fraser Band
Lanna Joffrey as Fatemeh and Nalân Burgess as Shirin in Sister Radio PIC: Fraser Band

Sister Radio, Pitlochry Festival Theatre ***

The Comedy Of Errors, Live at No. 40, Glasgow ****

Out of the pain of lockdown, a new Scottish theatre space is born; and Pitlochry Festival Theatre now has a gorgeous new 150-seat Studio Theatre, built during the long pandemic closure, to add to its main house, its gorgeous small woodland amphitheatre, and the riverside green space often used for family shows.

The first show to appear on its spacious square stage – with the audience on three sides – is a brand new play by British-Egyptian writer Sarah Shaarawi, Sister Radio, which reflects on the hugely topical theme of displacement, exile, and the lives of those who seek refuge in the UK. Shaarawi’s characters are two Iranian sisters, Shirin and Fatemeh, who first arrive in Britain in 1970, sent to study here by their father; but as the strange mix of sounds from their old radio set tell us, they somehow find themselves spending the next 50 years together in the same flat, and are still there in 2020, during lockdown.

Like a third character, the radio lights up with music, news bulletins, public health announcements, poetry, and sudden memories of their own conversations; and against this aural backdrop, on an atmospheric tenement-window set by Becky Minto, the two sisters gradually reveal a long-drawn-out family drama in two time-frames, involving a huge personal betrayal, decades of angry silence, and constant anxiety about family members back home, as Iran lives through its Islamic revolution, followed by decades of war and repression.

There are aspects of this story that are difficult to dramatise, notably the long silence between the sisters, which director Caitlin Skinner seeks to capture in frequent, dream-like repetitions of small domestic routines, as they measure out their lives in coffee spoons; and there’s sometimes a jarring lack of precision about dates, ages and location. Yet a passionate performance from Lanna Joffrey as older sister Fatemeh, with a poignantly youthful Nalan Burgess as Shirin, brings the drama of their relationship fully to life; in one of those quiet human tragedies that defy the demands of conventional dramatic structure, but still carry a powerful ring of truth.

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In a giant marquee at the Scottish Opera production studios car park, meanwhile, the Citizens’ Theatre – still closed for refurbishment four years on – revives its acclaimed 2021 ensemble production of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, so full of bells, whistles, flashing lights and comic effects that its exuberance sometimes acquires an edge of desperation. Written early in Shakespeare’s career, The Comedy of Errors is certainly not his most elegant or convincing play, and leaves plenty of space for the comic and theatrical shenanigans in which Dominic Hill’s ingenious production delights, as two sets of twins – two identical masters, two identical servants – chase one another around the city of Ephesus, creating a desperate tangle of mistaken identities and escalating accusations.

Despite its nonsensical and largely borrowed plot, Shakespeare’s play contains some gorgeous and poignant poetry, which could perhaps use a little more space here. For the most part, though, this formidable company of eight actors – led by Angus Miller as both Antipholuses, and a remarkable Michael Guest as both editions of the servant Dromio – are busily engaged in emphasising almost every line with as much shouting, banging, grimacing and savage crowd-pleasing slapstick as Jessica Worrall’s spacious warehouse set can accommodate; and please the crowd it does, attracting mighty roars of applause, at the show’s graceful and happy end.

Sister Radio is in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 28 September. The Comedy Of Errors is at Live At No. 40, Glasgow, until 3 September, and at Perth Theatre, 7-17 September