Neil Dowden in east London
The Arcola has finally reopened its indoor theatre – having previously staged shows only its temporary, partially covered outdoor space – for the first time since the Covid pandemic started over two years ago. Barney Norris’s new play We Started to Sing seems a good choice for the comeback as the writer made his name here. His first play Visitors won him the Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright in 2014, followed by Eventide which was also well received. Returning to the Arcola is a kind of homecoming for Norris, appropriately so as We Started to Sing deals with themes of home, roots, belonging, and identity. As usual, in this highly personal play he focuses on family relationships in a predominantly rural setting.
Naomi Petersen and Barbara Flynn. Photo credit: Alex Brenner.
In this case, the family in question is Norris’s own, with the characters bearing the same names. In an author’s note, he says that the play is: ‘A study of the people whose lives led to mine . . . This is a play about memory, not reality. I was only present at three of these scenes, and some of the others never exactly happened – they’re true stories in a slightly different way.’ The result is a tenderly affectionate, elegiac portrait of Norris’s grandparents and parents (who both divorced and remarried others) with Barney himself mentioned several times – from his precocious reading to his fledgling career in theatre – but remaining an offstage character.
The events take place over three decades in a number of homes across southern England, the Midlands, and the Welsh borders as the family moves around. In a sense, not a lot happens – this is very much character-driven drama about ageing, mortality, separation, and reconciliation. We see a low-key celebration of the seventieth birthday of Barney’s paternal grandfather Bert (as he points out, not actually on his birthday) and later his platinum wedding anniversary with his wife Peggy. After Barney’s concert-pianist father David goes to live in America, he and his younger brother relocate with their mother Fiona to south London, where she meets fellow singer Rob, with whom she has a daughter.
David Ricardo-Pearce as David. Photo credit: Alex Brenner.
Rather than action, there is a lot of storytelling and reminiscing – in particular from Bert whose quiet life as a country carpenter was blown apart during his time in the navy in the Second World War when he travelled abroad for the only time. Although he narrowly escaped injury or death several times, as he gets older he becomes more traumatized by his memories of those lost during the war – even if his tall tales suggest an unreliable narrator.
The trouble is that there is little dramatic conflict on stage, only reported second-hand through the prism of recollection. A rare example that we see is when there is a blame-throwing argument between the separated David and Fiona after some teenage shenanigans from Barney, which leads to him going to live with his father for a while. A lot of the conversation seems a bit inconsequential, but this is deliberate, showing how much our relationships depend on sharing everyday, mundane experiences. We Started to Sing is a slow-burning play that, if at times on the dull side, engages our sympathies with its warm glow.
David Ricardo-Pearce and Robin Soans. Photo credit: Alex Brenner.
Norris himself directs with sensitivity in the intimate Arcola space, with the audience sitting on three sides. Frankie Bradshaw’s design features a piano as well as pleated curtains on which are projected images of houses, gardens, and the countryside, as well as home movies, exuding a feeling of nostalgia. In between scenes there are sometimes piano-accompanied songs in keeping with the characters’ occupations.
Norris draws natural, understated performances from his cast. David Ricardo-Pearce plays the restless David who does not fulfil his career potential, Naomi Petersen is the family-oriented Fiona who doesn’t get on with her mother, and George Taylor is Rob who settles down after a globetrotting youth. But it is the grandparents who carry the emotional heart of the play, with Barbara Flynn’s sympathetic, positive Peggy and Robin Soans’s anecdotal, more backward-looking Bert complementing each other beautifully. As he jokes about their long marriage at their anniversary: ‘The secret is trust and understanding. She doesn’t trust me and I don’t understand her.’