Last of the Mohicans? No, last of the Pelicans. What’s that? I hear you ask. Pelicans – apparently – were thought to feed their young on their own blood. Who knew? Well, Shakespeare, at least, who had Lear describe his offspring as Pelican Daughters; and it’s true, a couple of those daughters were right cows, if not pelicans.
The Wardrobe Ensemble have been working together since 2010 although I only came across them with their superb Education, Education, Education, which has enjoyed a couple of runs at the Royal and Derngate (at least) as well as a big success at Edinburgh. Now, as a preview to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe run, they’ve devised The Last of the Pelican Daughters, the first performance of which took place last night before a very happy Northampton audience.
Joy, Storm, Sage and Maia, the four Pelican sisters, meet at their late mother’s house. Their mother must have been an absolute brick, because flashback memory scenes of her wise words permeate the minds of her children (and, as a result, the show), and she was clearly one in a million. She always knew the right thing to say, bringing them up to be independent, bold and true to themselves. Well, perhaps not Storm, who ended up being the one who had to look after her whilst she was ill, and now breeds resentment. And perhaps not Luke, the difficult baby brother, who went off to live with his dad following an unspecified break-up, and is now estranged from the rest of them. Although Joy appears to be successful, with plenty of money and a hipster boyfriend, she’s not happy. Whilst Sage is out and proud, she has difficulties holding down a relationship, and her sculptures, which she creates for a living, aren’t much good. That leaves Maia, who bums around the world; unpredictable, carefree but irresponsible. On reflection, perhaps Old Mother Pelican wasn’t a good mother after all.
After every death, there’s the issue of how to share out the estate. Five children? A fifth each? Seems fair. But Storm has other ideas, and there was an audible gasp of horror from the audience when she reveals her solution. Will the family reunion end in laughter or in tears? Will the siblings reconcile their differences? Will Joy’s and Maia’s boyfriends stay with them after the weekend? All this and more will be revealed if you see the show!
First things first; it’s a very funny, beautifully acted, well told story, which brings together several easily recognisable, intergenerational family issues with inventive humour and, at times, tons of emotion. The simple but effective design features a blank stage, but with oppressively pink walls that claustrophobically bear down on the acting space within, but which also keep a few design secrets (that I shan’t tell you about, except to say they work very well). For props, just some chairs, a table and, glory of glories, a 1980s hi-fi. On the back wall, chapter titles are projected throughout the play, which increases the sense of storytelling and a relentless hurtling towards a conclusion. The show starts with a projection of the famous first four lines of Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse, which, from the amount of laughter it generated from the audience, must have been new to a lot of people.
The characters are very well drawn; I particularly liked Jesse Meadows’ Storm, a fantastic portrayal of someone who feels like they’ve been taken advantage of and is now trying to redress the balance, and Ben Vardy’s thoroughly convincing Dodo, a flakey Californian type who has to “check-in” with you before talking to you, and who gets things off his chest because it’s good for his Zen, no matter how much harm it does others. Kerry Lovell’s Joy turns nicely from the self-assured oldest daughter into a deranged and desperate wannabe mother in a well-judged performance that’s half hilarious, half tragic; and Emily Greenslade gives a cleverly moving and funny performance in the triple roles of Lara, Granny’s carer, and the voice of Granny herself – amusingly and inventively done – and the solicitor.
Although it’s a good performance by Helena Middleton, I did think that they could have made more of her character, Sage, who starts out self-assertively and man-hating, but that thread never really goes anywhere. However, her scene where she takes some time out in her mother’s bedroom was very moving; Mrs Chrisparkle was particularly impressed, and maybe even slightly watery-eyed. James Newton is superbly awkward as the aggressive Luke, Tom England is great as the well-meaning and hearty Derren, and Sara Lessore very convincing as the free spirit Maia.
The story has a cracker of a plot twist at the end; I didn’t see it coming, but it’s absolutely true to life. I can see this being a must-see in Edinburgh this summer – they’re playing at the Pleasance Courtyard (Pleasance Beyond) at 16:40 every day of the Festival except Sunday 17th August. Highly recommended!
P. S. One tiny quibble: I must confess, I’m not entirely sure the play properly reflects the title (or vice versa). It’s a great title, no question. But why The Last of the Pelican Daughters? For one thing, there’s a son too – doesn’t he count? For another, there’s a baby on the way – and if it’s a girl, she’ll be the next PD, so who is The Last? Doesn’t really matter, but it slightly irks a personal desire for structural tidiness.