The Colby Sisters of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Tricycle Theatre, London – review

The costumes (Richard Kent) for this world premiere of Adam Bock’s new play are gorgeous and perfectly pitched. That might sound like a fatuous observation, but in fact the costumes are important in a play that is all about surfaces and the difficulties in maintaining them. The five Colby sisters of the title inhabit the gilded world of the New York social elite: a world in which even if you are just having a casual knockabout on the tennis court with your sisters you daren’t step out of the locker room without perfect designer whites. To say nothing of a funeral, where, no matter that you have lost a close family member in ghastly circumstances, you had better look good in black.

The appearance aspect of this play about appearance and reality is in good order, then; what is far less convincing is the substance. It’s perplexingly thin. It’s scarcely surprising that behind the glamorous façade all is not well: Willow (Claire Forlani) has money troubles, Garden (Patricia Potter) has marriage troubles, Mouse (Alice Sanders) has a string of unsuitable boyfriends, even India (Isabella Calthorpe), the placid beauty married to a globetrotting artist, seems to be struggling to maintain her poise. The one holding it all together and keeping the family stragglers’ problems out of the papers is Gemma (Charlotte Parry): very, very rich and bossy in equal measure.

But then Gemma pushes one sister just a little too far and something really bad happens – at which point you expect the play to switch gear into something much darker and more interesting. But though there’s a shift in the balance of power between the sisters and some hints at bullying, mental instability and suicide in the family, none of it is dealt with in a way that feels real or raw. You might expect a gun to the head to make more mess, both literal and psychological.

It’s interesting to consider the powerful bond between sisters and the fine cast in Trip Cullman’s production bring out deftly their individual frailties. Meanwhile Ronke Adekoluejo gives a wise, understated performance as Gemma’s all-seeing, circumspect assistant. There are some nice comic moments, such as the bust-up on the tennis court in which family tensions play out in a squabble over serves. But in the end, there’s less to all this than meets the eye.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.