Two years ago, The Wardrobe Ensemble staged a new play which was my highlight of the 2017 Fringe and has stayed with me ever since: Education, Education, Education. This meant that my expectations for The Last of the Pelican Daughters (created in collaboration with Complicité and Royal & Derngate Northampton) were sky-high and, while it took me longer to warm to this dark domestic tragedy, by the time the extraordinary cast took their bow, I had been fully won over.
The most immediately striking component of the production is its design (by Ruby Spencer Pugh); the cavernous space of the Pleasance Beyond occupied by the slanting walls of the Pelican family’s house. The room is coloured almost pastel white with pink shades and scratches that look simultaneously welcoming and forbidding. As the play progresses, the characters often remark on their family home as both refuge and prison and, in this sense, Pugh’s set design perfectly complements the production’s overall aesthetic.
“The Wardrobe Ensemble are masters of this tragicomic tonal register”
The narrative follows a family reunion between five siblings (four sisters and a younger brother who does not enter until the final act) after their domineering mother’s death. Each sister fulfils a societal archetype which results in slowly broiling tensions and a sense of growing unease throughout the show. We have the insecure carer, the high-powered businesswoman, an arty rebel and a care-free hippy and, while it initially seemed to me as though these might result in clichés and grandstanding speeches, it instead produced a familial narrative which perfectly reflected the tensions inherent in wider society.
Despite the growing sense of unease which pulses at the dark heart of The Last of the Pelican Daughters, it is also filled with moments of inspired humour. For instance, a line from The Lion King sits alongside Phillip Larkin in an opening series of quotations about parenthood before the play begins. In another early scene, which is charged with significance for the rising tensions between the sisters, Storm (played by the truly outstanding Jesse Meadows) decides that the most effective way to tell her siblings that she should have a greater share of the inheritance, due to caring for their mother, is via the medium of PowerPoint.
Cue a series of bar graphs, charts and, best of all, outdated WordArt graphics. Moments such as these both heighten the tension and suffuse it with laughter. The Wardrobe Ensemble are masters of this tragicomic tonal register and, by the end of the play, when revelations are flying thick and fast and the true nature of their shared inheritance is disclosed by an outsider, it is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. One of the play’s most powerful images occurs when each sibling takes turns, in flashbacks, to play the deceased mother who wears a red dress each time. This not only reminds the audience that they are united by blood, despite their various life choices and circumstances, but serves as an extremely moving metaphor for the fact that parents continue to live on in their children forever after death. The decision to introduce a fifth male sibling (played by James Meadow in a performance of raw emotional intensity) was also an inspired left turn for the play to take near its end as it twisted the narrative at a moment where, in a lesser company’s hands, the narrative may have taken a histrionic nosedive.
“A play of such emotional depth and painful reflection”
The company are, without question and exception, a wonderfully talented group of actors. While I have only mentioned two in this review, each warrants a full write-up of their own. Their interconnectedness is breath-taking, and the development of the family’s individual and collective grief is immensely moving. Meadows’ Storm perhaps stands out most predominantly as the lost child figure; a prodigal figure who hoped to fly the nest but was left at home to care while others left, free to fulfil their ambitions. Her ability to convey years of emotional turmoil with the merest eyebrow raise or twitch of her eyes marks her out as an exceptional performer.
The Last of the Pelican Daughters is a play of such emotional depth and painful reflection that it took me a while to fully absorb the force of its meaning and execution. The opening is quiet, downbeat and does nothing to prepare you for the coming onslaught. I implore you to stay with it and catch it at your earliest convenience. This is a company writing about and staging stories which, while appearing to be small and specific, resonate quite brilliantly with our broken world.
The Last of the Pelican Daughters has now finished its run at Pleasance Courtyard – Pleasance Beyond. More information about the production can be found here.
Image: Graeme Braidwood