Saturday, 23 February 2019

Review: Tea and Two Sugars (Two Time Theatre)

Tuesday 19th February 2019
53two, Manchester

I attended the press night of another new play in Manchester this week on behalf of North Manchester FM. This time, it was Tea and Two Sugars at 53Two. My review will be played on Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday, but here – as is becoming usual – is the (slightly) longer version.

Tea and Two Sugars is a new play by Salford University graduates Rachel Isbister and Crystal Williams, who work together as Two Time Theatre. Co-written (and co-starring) Isbister and Williams, and directed by Chloe Patricia Beale, Tea and Two Sugars was staged at 53Two – the innovative and creative arts space located under the Deansgate arches.

Tea and Two Sugars is a two-hander, telling the story of sisters Hannah and Izzy, and the impact a cancer diagnosis has on their relationship. The play has a single set – Hannah’s living room – and takes place over a period of several months, in vignettes depicting key moments in the story.

The play’s opening is immediately compelling. The audience walks through the stage to take their seats – having seen other plays at the venue, I can say that this a creative choice, rather than a necessity, but one that’s facilitated by the flexible performance space – and it’s not long before the sound of voices from the bar area indicates that we’re being followed by the characters themselves. Hannah and Izzy arrive on stage chattering and laughing, setting the conversational, everyday tone that will be sustained throughout the play.

Hannah is a level-headed 25-year-old (played by Isbister), and Izzy is a fidgety teenage chatterbox (played by Williams). The performances in Tea and Two Sugars are excellent, and the chemistry between the two is a significant strength. Williams’s Izzy is at once precocious and immature, self-absorbed and vulnerable. Isbister’s Hannah is the counterpoint to this, a poised young woman older than her years (and the play makes a number of well-pitched references to why Hannah has needed to adopt this persona, which evoked backstory without dumping exposition on the audience). Utterly believable as sisters, Williams and Isbister manage to imbue even the most mundane dialogue (which is, as the title suggests, often about making cups of tea) with a meaningful charm.

The sisters’ relationship is put under stress by the revelation that Hannah has been diagnosed with cervical cancer. While I think most audiences will be aware that this is the play’s main subject matter (not least from its fundraising for the charity Jo’s Trust throughout the run), it is interesting to think about how this revelation would look if you didn’t know what to expect. In my opinion, the play works well in this way, particularly in the way it presents Hannah’s (as then undiagnosed) symptoms within the context of discussions about Izzy’s first period, with the younger woman asking her sister if those things are ‘normal’ and receiving no answer.

The conversations within the play about menstruation, puberty and female sexuality are handled with a light touch, but a serious heart. The character of Izzy convinces as an adolescent, and the revelation that this boisterous, make-up-wearing, party-going young woman has actually only just reached menarche was touchingly (and scarily) realistic. Sadly, the idea that Izzy has been taught how to put a condom on a banana, but nothing about sanitary products, also rang true.

Overall, however, while the play has many strengths, I was underwhelmed by the way the cancer storyline was handled. Perhaps this is because it is a one-act play, with limited space to fully expand its narrative. We see little of Hannah’s illness itself – or of the toll the illness takes on Izzy – as the time constraints move us from diagnosis to revelation to bad news to the decision to cease treatment at a rapid pace. Hannah ends more as a traditional heroine of the sickness melodrama, physically unchanged by her illness but inevitably destined to die. I question whether romanticizing the illness to this extent is really offering something new, and I felt the story lacked any real explanation or clarification as to what sort of treatment or symptoms a real-life Hannah would experience. The play side-steps the messiness and complexity of a cancer diagnosis in favour of a tear-jerking coming-of-age finale.

It’s a shame that the story turned to a more melodramatic arc, as its early scenes (and the initial build-up to Hannah’s revelation) are skilfully handled. Williams and Isbister create a believable and likable pair of sisters, who are placed in a milieu that is fascinating in its very ordinariness. The attention to detail in the show’s set is fantastic, making expert use of a rather small stage area. And I really liked the feature of having Hannah pin selfies of the two sisters to a string of lights in between scenes.

Ultimately, this is a well-written, well-directed and beautifully performed piece that exudes warmth and charm. If the cancer narrative itself is somewhat limited in its execution, the ‘world’ of Hannah and Izzy feels very real. Two Time Theatre Company is definitely emerging as one to watch, and I look forward to seeing what’s next from this new company.

Tea and Two Sugars was on at 53Two from the 19th-22nd February.

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