Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Sister Radio is a rare beast: an intimate two-hander with an epic sweep. We open with some recorded sound: two childish voices, giddy and playful, welcoming an imaginary audience to the ‘Sister Radio’ of the title. And then we move forward in time and place: we’re in Edinburgh; it’s 2020; the pandemic has just landed on our shores. The girls have grown up; indeed, sisters Fatemeh (Lanna Joffrey) and Shirin (Nalân Burgess) have been sharing a tenement flat for more than forty years. But something is amiss. Why don’t they speak to each other?
Sara Shaarawi’s script flits nimbly between the past and the present. Suddenly it’s the late 1970s, and Shirin arrives, suitcase in hand, newly immigrated to the UK from Tehran. Fatemeh is older; she’s already established a life for herself here – but she’s excited to see her sister, happy to share her apartment. As we move back and forth in time, we begin to see both the macrocosmic events that have shaped the women’s lives, and the microcosmic ones that have silenced them.
Despite the constraints of a simple, fixed set (designed by Becky Minto) and minimal costume changes, we are never in any doubt as to when we are, thanks to the clever soundscape emanating from the radio. It’s a lovely device, reminding us of the close relationship the sisters used to enjoy, and also anchoring us in time, via popular music and news coverage of key events. There’s the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Chernobyl disaster, a royal wedding or two – and, of course, the Iranian revolution, the reason Fatemeh and Shirin have sought sanctuary in Scotland. Their personal conflict plays out against this background, and director Caitlin Skinner skilfully balances the two strands.
Both Joffrey and Burgess inhabit their characters, their performances convincing and compelling, illuminating Shaarawi’s subtle exploration of what it means to be an immigrant. Their voluble discussions about their imagined futures are fascinating – while Shirin wants to return to Tehran, Fatemeh sees Edinburgh as her home. Even the years of silence are engaging, thanks to movement director Saffy Setohy: the sisters almost dance their daily rituals, existing separately within the same space, side-stepping away, their eyes never meeting – not even when they’re swapping coffee cups, to read each other’s fortunes in the grounds.
The revelation, when it comes, is somewhat disappointing: it’s mundane and predictable, unlike the set up. But maybe that’s the point: whatever else is going on – even something as momentous as the toppling of a regime – it’s the little things that propel us. We’re never free of our own pettiness.
Sister Radio, co-produced by Pitlochry Theatre and Stellar Quines, is on at the Traverse until Saturday. It’s a quietly impressive piece, and all the more resonant because of the current protests in Iran.