My Sister Sadie: Background

Alan Ayckbourn has been consistently writing plays for young people with his family plays since 1988. Increasingly he has also emphasised how this work is not a separate strand to his adult work, but should be considered in the same light.

Arguably by 2000, critics were beginning to re-evaluate Alan’s plays for young people and to discuss them more seriously as it became increasingly obvious these plays were dealing with familiar themes from 'adult' Ayckbourn plays and could often be construed as companion pieces to many earlier plays.

In 2003, Alan brought the two strands of his work even closer together with his 65th play
My Sister Sadie: a play that is arguably a companion to Comic Potential and which explores issues that would challenge even an 'adult' play. My Sister Sadie is a highly moral play which also tackles issues such as grief from the loss of loved ones, the abuse of technology, jealousy and young love, mental breakdown, the morality of right and wrong and the conflict of good and evil. It is not a play to be easily dismissed! Part of its inspiration was also the then very pertinent issue of the second war in Iraq and the issues of weapons of mass destruction; of which Sadie is one.

As a companion piece to
Comic Potential, both plays share the same theme of, what is it that makes us human? In both plays, an artificial life-form is found to be more human than many of the people around her; in Sadie’s case, her ability to make a moral decision to save Luke is compared to Dr Grayling’s perception that that same decision makes Sadie redundant. Sadie’s humanity is defined by that decision as much as Dr Grayling’s amorality is defined by hers. Where the plays differ is in Comic Potential, the actoid Jacie begins to develop emotions (such as humour and love), which are seen as a bug or flaw in her programming. Sadie is programmed with at least basic emotions such as love and aggression, which lead to an internal conflict and eventually require an independent moral decision by Sadie. Intriguingly, Sadie’s compassionate programming over-rides the aggressive programming and eventually wipes the latter from her system.

Sadie is guided in her moral decisions by a relatively strong Ayckbourn male character. This is unusual as the majority of men in
My Sister Sadie, as with many of Alan’s plays, are either lacking (Luke’s father left for another woman years earlier) or are generally useless (Captain Lennox). The teenage Luke initially seems to follow the same pattern as very much a reactive character, but he and his mother essentially become Sadie’s moral compass and at the climax of the play Luke subverts the Ayckbourn norm by trying to save Sadie, defining his character at the same time as Sadie defines hers.

Previously, Alan’s family plays had tended to have a younger protagonist. In
My Sister Sadie, the age is moved upward. Luke is 17 and Sadie, by implication, looks a similar age; Luke’s girlfriend Lisa also feels their relationship is threatened by Sadie. This trend for an older protagonist continued in 2004 with Miss Yesterday. As his characters have grown so the problems they face have moved on and so the issues they face creep ever closer to the main body of Alan’s adult work.

My Sister Sadie is also a play that is full of cinematic references - something which Alan has increasingly incorporated into his work. Alan is an acknowledged fan of science fiction and there are definite nods to both Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and James Cameron’s The Terminator; which best sums up Sadie’s mix of benevolent innocence and potential danger. The final scene in which Sadie chooses to save Luke, held by her over a precipice, is undoubtedly a nod to Ridley Scott’s dystopian sci-fi classic Blade Runner in which the replicant (android) Roy Batty asserts his humanity by saving his hunter, Deckard, from a similar fate.

The play opened at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in December 2006 and was well-received by both critics and audience. Alan had had some misgivings in rehearsals as to whether the play would be accepted due to its darker content. However, young audiences seemed to embrace the complexity of the play and the vast majority of the critics praised Alan for not patronising his young audience and offering them challenging fare over the Christmas season. Only the Daily Telegraph’s critic Dominic Cavendish had major issues with the piece unfavourably comparing it to Comic Potential and arguing against the suitability of its contents for a play aimed for both children and Christmas. However, these same points were praised not only by other critics, but by many teachers from school parties visiting the production, whose feedback praised the play for dealing with more substantial issues in a play for youngsters.

My Sister Sadie was published by Faber concurrently with the opening of the show and has an important place in Alan’s writing. It not only again demonstrated how far a young audience can be pushed, but is arguably the most adult of his plays for young people.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.