Finborough Theatre – until 6 August 2022
For the second time this year, the first being Sophie Swithinbank’s sensational Bacon back in the Spring, the tiny Finborough punches up with a new work that lays a strong claim to be considered best play of the year. Lucy Roslyn’s Pennyroyal takes Edith Wharton’s 1922 novella The Old Maid as its initial inspiration but feels immensely immediate and relevant. It centres on a very specific theme – Premature Ovarian Insufficiency, not a Wharton issue, to be clear – but in it’s unflinching, open-hearted depiction of the stresses and dynamics of family relationships it nudges towards the universal. There’s a lot to unpack and connect with here, and it is exquisitely observed.
Sisters Christine and Daphne have a genial but sometimes fractious relationship, and when younger sibling Daphne (a terrific Madison Clare) discovers, age 19, that she is unable to have children, her older sister (author Roslyn, heart-catchingly good) steps in to help by donating her eggs. The path ahead proves far from straightforward and Roslyn’s nailing of the contradictory nature of sibling relationships is sharp and satisfying, as is her deeply moving understanding of loneliness even among apparently happy, sorted people (“I’d see my shadow and I’d be like: well, that’s proof then. There I am” says Christine at a certain point in one of several monologues that cut like knives).
Roslyn’s text is suffused with affection but it’s as cruel as it is loving. Her writing is gorgeous: poetic flights of fancy are suddenly undercut by pithy shards of relatable bittersweet humour as the sisters bicker, remember and pontificate. It’s very funny and also, at times, wildly eccentric, yet every line, monologue and muttered aside matters; the script is lean yet extravagant, and some of the longer speeches will inevitably crop up as audition pieces in the near future. It’s hard to imagine anybody matching the insouciant brilliance of Roslyn and Clare though: these women are phenomenal.
Josh Roche’s tender but tough production doesn’t put a foot wrong: even the way the bell jars housing tiny plants (Christine is a horticulturalist) light up at given points are little moments of magic. The chemistry between the actresses is a thing of wonder. Roslyn and Clare don’t look alike but utterly convince as sisters seven years apart, dealing with a difficult but rather marvellous sounding (unseen, to us) mother, and a long-standing childhood friend who ends up being a lot less of an ally than they would have hoped for.
Roslyn is a chummy, disarming stage presence, so natural as the innately good, kind but never cloying Christine (her hatred of the aforementioned family friend is gleefully funny) that it barely feels like she’s acting. It’s a beautiful, beguiling performance. Clare matches her, making Daphne likeable but with a convincing edge of wildness and aggression. At first the younger sister exudes an aching vulnerability but the shift of power that comes later on is completely credible, and it proves impossible not to care about these flawed but fundamentally good women. Christine’s gayness is introduced fairly late on but feels authentic and one can only hope that the unseen Carolyn is worthy of her.
The title – Pennyroyal – refers to a species of the mint family that can be used for medicinal purposes but is toxic to the liver in too high doses. It’s a fitting metaphor for a sibling relationship that nurtures and sustains but can tip over into something much less wholesome at a moment’s notice.
This quietly riveting little gem packs as much truth, illumination and sheer theatrical potency into it’s eighty minutes playing time than many other plays of double the length. It sears as it amuses, it’s a powerfully women-driven piece, and it’s a genuine emotional rollercoaster. What’s not to love? See it. Bring tissues.