Review: The Etienne Sisters, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“I can’t believe my own sister would come with this thievery and anarchy to my door…”

Just a couple of weeks ago, Matt Trueman penned a piece for What’s On Stage about the lack of experimentation in British musical theatre and so the arrival of The Etienne Sisters at the Theatre Royal Stratford East is right on cue. Renewing the creative partnership that produced last year’s smouldering Klook’s Last Stand, this new musical was written by Ché Walker with songs by Anoushka Lucas and additional songs contributed by Sheila Atim (who also starred in Klook’s…), it’s a fascinatingly freeform experiment in jazz virtuosity and soulful discovery.

Led by Nikki Yeoh’s stunning work from the piano, this “play with music” has that music stitched into its very existence, its narrative folds unwind as much from the singing as the speaking to give a thrilling sense of integration to this tale of family strife. Sisters Tree and Ree are mourning the death of their mother and the arrival of their half-sister Bo, who they haven’t spoken to in five years, brings even more disruption to a time of considerable emotional upheaval. But with trouble comes tenderness too, the weight of past history making up for present difficulties. 

Walker’s story shows a keen understanding of how tangled family dynamics can get, the needling frustrations that only a sibling can provoke and also the power that the potential of forgiveness can wield. And in the hands of Nina Toussaint-White’s deliciously forthright Tree, Jennifer Saayeng’s more forgiving Ree and the boisterous swagger of Allyson Ava-Brown’s Bo, this complicated chemistry is entirely captivating, none more so than when their soaring vocals are wrapping themselves around the contours of Lucas and Atim’s expressive music. 

There are moments when Walker’s direction loses a little focus, using the full depth of the too-large stage in Ti Green’s spare design and dissipating the intimacy that is a key strength of the production. But the minute the sisters come back together – physically, spiritually, musically, the power of The Etienne Sisters is undoubted. 

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Robert Day
Booking until 3rd October

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