My Sister Sadie: World Premiere Reviews
My Sister Sadie (by Alfred Hickling)
"Alan Ayckbourn likes his androids. He's already brought us a robot mistress in Henceforward…, robot actors in Comic Potential and robot gardeners in Virtual Reality.* Now he has devised a children's show about a robot sister. Needless to say, it runs like clockwork.
Luke has tragically lost one sister, so he and his mother are thrilled when another one drops out of the sky. Sadie miraculously walks clear from the wreckage of a military helicopter, but the suspicion that she is not all she appears to be arises when she first eats a bowl of cornflakes. I ought to point out here that she leaves the cornflakes but eats the bowl.
Sadie is not in fact Sadie but SADIE - a Secret Automated Destructive Independent Entity, a high-tech booby trap designed to spread chaos and destruction - though when you come to think of it, isn't this what most kid sisters are primed to do anyway?
The language and plotting are child-friendly, but Ayckbourn's philosophical argument remains as complex as ever. He expresses concern at the way technology dehumanises us, yet suggests we may be redeemed if the technology becomes so sophisticated as to mirror human frailties. Introduced into a warm and loving environment, the android cannot find it within itself to be a passionless killing machine, but settles down to play nicely with her new brother instead.
Ayckbourn's production engineers the usual range of well-oiled performances. The excellent Saskia Butler stands out for suggesting that she's made of sugar and spice one moment and chips and diodes the next. Neil Grainger turns in a winning performance as her brother and Justin Brett is good value as a dotty army captain who cannot remember anyone's names. By jingo, I'd say that Aitchburne chappy has done it again."
(The Guardian, 5 December 2003)
* The robot gardener in Virtual Reality is actually a holographic computer generated character.
My Sister Sadie (by Jeremy Kingston)
"The new family play by Alan Ayckbourn starts off with a helicopter crash. Not actually down on to the stage, though the lights circling above Luke Pickett and his mother suggest that this might happen at any moment.
I don't know Ayckbourn's definition of a family play, though it's safe to say that starting off with violent deaths will be an uncommon feature of the genre. But he is not a playwright who shrinks from the harsher areas of experience, and when pitching a play at a younger audience he knows just how to balance alarm with comedy and to provide the reassuring end.
Surely nobody could survive such a crash? But what is that, moving beyond the flames? Can that possibly be a girl? When Saskia Butler totters unsteadily into view she certainly looks like one, later learning to answer to the name "Sadie" that is tattooed on her thigh. She is evidently in shock but there's also something odd about her ready mimicry of other people's voices and gestures - when Luke (Neil Grainger) bites into his slice of toast she dutifully bites her cereal bowl.
Her computer-like speed at chess suggests that she may not be quite as human as the people she has landed among, especially when an army captain and sergeant arrive - neither proving to be quite as dim as they seem at first - followed by Alexandra Mathie's coldly efficient boffin with her talk of ultimate weapons and threats to the world.
What ensues is a struggle by the Picketts, helped by Luke's initially jealous girlfriend (Charlie Hayes), to conceal Sadie from the forces searching for her. The climax is reached on the summit of a nearby crag with Luke dangling over the edge and a computer puzzling over problems of good and evil.
Mighty matters, then, and the school party of nine and ten-year-olds were not too young to become aware of them. They looked to be engrossed by the issues as well as delighted by the cereal bowl stuff and no doubt relieved at the conclusion.
On the way to this there are scenes of sadness to do with a drowned daughter of the house, movingly played by Grainger and by Becky Hindley, who makes a telling use of pauses as Avril. Justin Brett and Adrian McLaughlin complete an admirable cast.
All of them are regulars at a theatre that Ayckbourn has made into the stage equivalent of the old Ealing Comedies: familiar faces reappear time after time and we are all delighted to see them again."
(The Times, 8 December 2003)
My Sister Sadie (by Dave Windass)
"Alan Ayckbourn avoids patronising his younger audience when he pens a play for all the family. His latest offering, My Sister Sadie, again shows how adept the writer and director is at pitching a show at different levels.
The play is set on a farm in the middle of nowhere. When a helicopter crashes, son and mother double act Luke (Neil Grainger) and Avril Pickett (Becky Hindley) alert the emergency services. Shortly afterwards, a female stranger turns up at their farmhouse and, exhibiting all the signs of shock, it becomes apparent that this woman was involved in the crash.
The woman, it transpires, is Sadie (Saskia Butler) and she has arrived at just the right time for the Picketts, who are still mourning the death of Luke's sister. Although the military have turned up to investigate the crash and Sadie holds all the clues, the Picketts go to extremes to protect their new family member.
Like a lot of Ayckbourn's more recent work, this draws on cinematic references. There are elements of ET and Terminator here, amid polemic about genetic engineering, weapons of mass destruction and the work of scientists. Subject matter then that is all very pertinent to the troubled times in which we live.
And, without giving too much away, Ayckbourn's love of faulty gadgetry has reared its head again and the impressive Butler echoes Janie Dee's fine performance in the adult-aimed Comic Potential.
This is an interesting play that more than holds the attention of youngsters. The words, performances, Kath Geraghty's dazzling helicopter-on-fire lighting, and the imaginative way Pip Leckenby's set changes will give them plenty to think about - and they will be back for more."
(The Stage, 3 January 2004)
Ayckbourn At His Engrossing Best (by Charles Hutchinson)
"A helicopter crashes at Muddle Farm, Little Muddle, in the remotest South Western countryside.
The only witnesses to the hillside inferno are 17-year-old farmhand Luke (Neil Grainger) and his mother, Avril Pickett (Becky Hindley), for whom life has been harsh on their run-down, isolated farmhouse since Luke's sister, June, drowned seven years ago.
How they wish she could be back with them, how they hope for a miracle, but not for the return of Avril's husband, who walked out on the family for another woman in Basingstoke.
Then, there is a knock on the door. Enter a frightened young woman (Saskia Butler), in her early 20s - June would have been 22 by now - in an orange flying suit. She has survived the crash and is in a state of shock, but there is something deeper than mere trauma here.
She speaks in a most literal manner, walks in a stiff manner and lacks social niceties. She says she comes from Upwards and her name is Sadie, as tattooed on her.
She pleads "Don't let them find me, they mustn't find me". 'They' are brusque Dr Thora Grayling (Alexandra Mathie) and the Army, whose elite rapid response unit must locate a 'weapon' still on board the MOD chopper.
What is the top-security weapon; where is the missing scientist Caroline Forrester; and who is Sadie? Are they all by any chance linked? The plot thickens, as pleasingly and richly as whipped cream, in the latest fantastic and fantastical play for the family by writer-director Alan Ayckbourn.
Sadie is welcomed by the protective, previously hardened Avril like a long-lost daughter; and an increasing bond develops with Luke too, much to the chagrin of his headstrong girlfriend Lisa (Charlie Hayes). All the while, prim Grayling closes in on her quarry, and Captain Leonard Lennox (Justin Brett) and his sergeant (Adrian McLoughlin) lead the bungling crash-site clearance operation, forever one step behind.
This is a classic tender, thought-provoking and amusing cautionary tale from Ayckbourn, with a ring of darkness that recalls Andersen, Dickens and Dahl. The tenderness comes in the budding family relationships and Ayckbourn's championing the triumph of love over evil; the comedy milks the 'strange' behaviour and plain speaking of Sadie and the military incompetence (typified by a running gag involving Captain Lennox's inability to remember correctly any name); and the darkness lies in the dangers of scientific experimentation.
With excellent performances and masterful direction, an engrossing story that marries IT with ET and a happy ending, My Sister Sadie is a superb family drama, social comedy and science-fiction thriller rolled into one."
(Yorkshire Evening Press, 8 December 2003)
Early Start For Ayckbourn Fun And Games (by Lynda Murdin)
"I'm not a morning person, so it came as a shock to the system to find myself sitting in the SJT's auditorium at 10am.
Evening performances of Alan Ayckbourn's new family show start on December 19 and until then, audiences at the twice-daily presentations are swelled by school groups. These youngsters turned out to be as lively at that unearthly hour as I was sluggish.
My Sister Sadie had a reverse effect on us. They all quietened down and sat completely spellbound, I was jolted fully awake. The craft of a master storyteller, coupled with precision acting by a cast of seven, was far more invigorating than a much needed coffee.
The production has an audacious simplicity which belies the skill needed to carry it off. This is a Christmas show with none of the trimmings. There's not a song nor a dance and certainly no rhyming couplets. Scenery is colourless and stark: rudimentary kitchen furniture indoors, grey rock formations outdoors.
Ayckbourn's 65th work actually turns out to be a grown-up drama. It's a mystery-thriller tweaked with comedy to appeal to kids and obliquely promoting the timely message to love one and other.
It doesn't get at all heavy but issues are touched on that could (even earlier) have been discussed on Radio 4's Today programme. They range from overcoming grief after a child's death to locating a weapon of mass destruction.
First, the sound of a helicopter crash acts as an alarm-call-cum-silencer. It occurs on land close to the farmhouse occupied by 17 year-old Luke and his mother, Avril.
Typical of modern society, they were abandoned some years ago by Luke's father who went to live with another woman.
That happened after Luke's sister broke the rules, swam alone in the river and drowned: clearly, a warning for any adventurous types.
Now into their home walks a very odd girl with a dirty face. All she can tell them is that she came from "Upwards". She's a bit aggressive at first and repeats everything like a robot, soon adopting their Mummerset accents.
Avril, ascribing her peculiarities to shock after the crash, believes she's been sent as a replacement for her deceased daughter. She discovers the visitor has the name Sadie tattooed on her body and hence declares her to be the reluctant Luke's sister, Sadie.
Sadie, a sci-fi creation reminiscent of the female "actoid" in Ayckbourn's 1998 hit, Comic Potential, is terrified of being discovered by crash investigators. They are represented here by cheerfully bungling Army personnel who are at bureaucratic odds with Dr Thora Grayling, "a bossy boffin". Increasingly exasperated, Dr Grayling is also searching for the body of her female professor colleague as well as for a secret weapon she had taken on the helicopter with her.
If that sounds as dry as a post-Christmas Detox diet, let me assure you, it is not. The show may uniquely lack any jot of seasonal festivity - even last year's at times dark and dangerous The Jollies boasted a magician, sacred cabinet and an actor in doggy animal skin - but, to borrow from the Army's comic use of initials, it's very FFP (Fit For Purpose).
Eschewing special effects, My Sister Sadie makes its fun in simpler ways. Youngsters roared with laughter when Luke hid under a blanket and startled the Army captain; they gasped when Sadie ate her "ceramic" breakfast bowl and later "spoke" with a different voice; they even enjoyed the automatic between-act shifting of the scenery.
In addition, Ayckbourn, who also directs, enlivens his characters with observational humour that young and old alike can appreciate. Capt Leonard Lennox (a terrific Justin Brett) is a clipped military man, clearly Sandhurst trained, who can't remember anyone's name. He regards Dr Grayling as a "dreadful woman" and, playing that role, Alexandra Mathie briskly and efficiently justifies his opinion of her.
As Lisa, Luke's jealous girlfriend, Charlie Hayes is frighteningly accurate in her portrayal of a teenager with attitude. By contrast, Neil Grainger turns Luke into that rare being, a Mister Nice Guy, on whose mobile face a torn conscience about deceiving officialdom is clearly and cleverly etched.
A humanoid machine, however, sometimes shows real emotion, sometimes fakes it and sometimes remains impassive. In the title role, Saskia Butler pushes all the right buttons, switching from frightened girl to automaton with understated brilliance. Janie Dee won major drama awards as Jacie Triplethree in Comic Potential. Butler deserves no less."
(Yorkshire Post, 12 December 2003)
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