*This review is based on a preview performance of ‘Poisoned Polluted’.
As you enter the intimate space in the Old Red Lion Theatre, printed pictures of green leaves, the kind you find on trees in spring, cover the wall. There are also actual leaves scattered on the floor near the back. The set is mostly bare except from an old-school TV and some chairs. There’s a pervasive feeling that we’re operating on the outskirts, away from society. Similarly the story which you are presented with in ‘Poisoned Polluted’ feels like one that is positioned in the fringes, one that is deeply personal and painfully private.
The play, directed by Lucy Allan and written by Kathryn O’Reilly, tackles a range of difficult themes including childhood trauma, drug addiction and child sex abuse. It centres around two sisters who are not given names. Although the siblings share the same difficult upbringing, their paths in life have considerably diverged over time.
When you first meet the sisters, the main difference you notice is in their appearances. The older sister (Kathryn O’Reilly) has just come out of rehab and wears ill-fitting and worn out clothes. The younger sister (Anna Doolan) seems to be better dressed in ‘charity-shop chic’ clothes: dungarees; a sparkly green jumper; and a leopard print coat.
We are taken back in time to their childhood and see the undeniable bond that they share. The pair talk about how they’re each other’s favourite person: ‘You’re my favourite more than macaroni and cheese’, ‘You’re my favourite more than Freddos’. However the sisters experience a series of traumatic events during their childhood. It later becomes evident that the toxic environment that they have grown up in has not only had a notable impact on the kind of people that they grow to be but it has also created a marked strain on their relationship over time.
The youngest sister of the two narrates most of the events of the show and so we are drawn to empathise with her character more. In sharp contrast, the older sister experiences a steep deterioration as she falls into addiction. We only notice the changes in the older sister’s behaviours through her interactions with her younger sister. A limitation of this is that we aren’t provided with a detailed insight into what exactly prompted her sudden fall into taking drugs.
Anna Doolan and Kathyrn O’Reilly deliver exceptional performances and share a chemistry which makes them perfectly cast as siblings. O’Reilly’s performance as someone who struggles with substance abuse is alarmingly convincing. Her impassioned mood swings and the way that she almost froths at the mouth when she speaks is harrowing to see. Although there’s humour in the show, it’s not the kind where we share in their joke. Rather, it’s usually due to the strange and uncomfortable things that the older sister will say by missing social cues.
Poisoned Polluted ultimately confronts you with the age old nature versus nurture debate: how have the sisters ended up so different? It’s a provocative, bold and compelling piece of theatre.
Poisoned Polluted is running at The Old Red Lion Theatre until 30 November 2019 at the time of writing.
Photo Credit: Robert Workman