First of all, an apology to the woman sitting next to me (a total stranger) for blurting out the reveal (in a determined stage whisper). I’m sure she was ahead of me on this, but even so… I’m sorry. (Note to self: Button it!)
Written by Matthew Bulgo (with creative assistance from Jonnie Riordan and Jess Williams), Blood Harmony tells the story of three adult sisters – whose lives have taken different paths – who are drawn back together by the death of their mother.
Families offer rich pickings for writers by providing fertile ground for conflict, resentment, and emotional damage to take root and grow. The danger is, families also present a writer with minefields of cliché and stereotype. Here we have the Emotionally-Repressed Professional High-Achiever – eldest sister, Anna (Philippa Hogg); the Fragile Funny Substance-Abusing Screw-Up – middle sister, Maia (Keshini Misha); and the Downtrodden Dutiful Self-Denier – youngest sister, Chloe (Eve de Leon Allen). Of course, such characters do exist in many families. The problem is to make believable, three-dimensional, unique individuals of them – archetypes not stereotypes. It’s a tough ask, but the writer has to rise to it.
There are moments here when Bulgo’s script moves in the right direction (such as when Chloe finally cracks and pours out her true feelings about having been left to nurse their sickly mother) but immediately after, we’re back to painting surfaces again. The cast work hard to breathe life into the characters, but they don’t have enough support from what is on the page.
What of the departed mother, for example? Who was this woman they are (meant to be) mourning? She raised three daughters (largely alone, it seems, as father gets barely a mention) but the three of them offer little more than a sketchy outline of her over the 90 minute running time. What we do learn is often plot-driven rather than character-driven. She managed, for instance, to get an upright piano into the attic (where the entire play is set); an incongruity meriting mention in the script:
Maia: How’d it get up here?!
Chloe: I… actually have no idea.
Neither have we (but, it turns out, the plot requires it).
Family reunions can be brutal affairs: emotional steam-rooms where perceived injustice and injury is sweated out, ruthless street fights where blood is spilled, tears are shed and (if you’re very lucky) some wounds are licked, some ties repaired. Perhaps, with opening night nerves out of the way, these three will find ways to add flesh to the bare bones (Riordan and Williams can help by getting them to slow down and reflect on what might be the emotional impact of the situations each finds herself in).
The highlight of the production is its music – specially composed by the Staves and delivered consistently well by the cast. The harmonies in particular are outstanding. Credit must go to ‘vocal captain’ Philippa Hogg, sound designer, Charlotte Barber, and sound engineer, Emily Compton, who brings out every note with crystal clarity.
Excellent harmony, but too little blood, not enough sweat, and no tears.
Blood Harmony is at The Lowry from 10-18 June. Age guidance 14+