When Michael Boyd, (now artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company), staged the British premiere of Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay’s Scots translation of French Quebecois playwright Michel Tremblay’s The Guid Sisters,(Les Belles-Soeurs) at the Tron in1989, the production was instantly hailed as a landmark of Scottish theatre.
Now Bowman and Findlay’s version of Tremblay’s groundbreaking look at the lives of ordinary working-class women receives its first major revival since then, in this superb co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and Lyceum.
In his programme notes Lyceum director Mark Thomson calls The Guid Sisters a “great cultural rocket.” And there is certainly no shortage of fireworks on stage here in leading Quebecois director Serge Denoncourt’s production, which harnesses together the talents of some of Scotland’s finest actresses to mesmerising effect.
Les Belles- Souers was revolutionary at the time for being written in the French street dialect of joual and the broad Scots tenement demotic employed by Bowman and Findlay chimes brilliantly with the material.
An immensely funny,and moving, emotional rollercoaster of a play, The Guid Sisters takes place over one night in the kitchen of a 1960s working class district of Montreal.
Here, Germaine, (Kathryn Howden), who has won a million savings stamps -, enough “to do the house up from top to bottom” with items from the catalogue- invites her sisters Rose (Karen Dunbar), and Gabrielle, (Jane McCarry), as well as various friends and neighbours, round to help with the labour of putting them into books.
As the all female party gets into full swing, tensions rise and jealousies and resentments simmer, as in between the bawdy banter and squabbling, characters step out into spotlight for monologues full of pathos that reveal their inner turmoil, and thwarted dreams. All of it set against the context of the poverty they live in, and the hopes of a big win driven by the consumerist dream, and the restricting Catholic faith, that they cling to for sustenance. That said, during the evening their masks of pious respectability slip more than once.
Out of these different experiences of womanhood- fear of being left on the shelf; faded glamour; a grin- and -bear it life wasted in marital duty; Annie Ross’s moving turn as a fifty-something trying to get some fun out of life before it’s too late -,Tremblay weaves the emotional material at hand into something that is both highly comic and entertaining,(a rap about bingo;; slapstick humour), as well as thought provoking with its thoughts on class, age, sex, religion and materialism.
During proceedings not one of the exemplary, all female, ensemble cast put a foot wrong. And it would be wrong to single out any one performance.
But in order to provide some flavour of the production, suffice to say Dunbar makes for a fine sharp-tongued Rose, while Howden, powerfully leads the line with a dominating, vibrant energy, as material- obsessed, Germaine.
Elsewhere Molly Innes is a hoot as self styled martyr, “saint” Therese, who for all her moans of sacrifice isn’t afraid to give her wheelchair-bound mother-in-law a slap on the head to keep her quiet; Gail Watson is excellent as Germain’e jealous neighbor Marie-Ange Brouilette, with Sally Reid and Hannah Donaldson making a fine fist of the trials and tribulations of the younger generation.
At the end of the show, the cast provide a sisterhood rousing show of solidarity by delivering a chorus of Burns’ A Man’s A Man For A’ That that serves as testament for our dreams of equality and understanding no matter our differences.
The Guid Sisters, Lyceum, Edinburgh, until Oct 13. Tel: 0131 248 4848