Arcola Theatre (venue)
24 May 2022 (released)
25 May 2022
After over two years of being shuttered, the Arcola Theatre has finally thrown open its doors with the debut of Barney Norris’ We Started To Sing. The play is a homecoming of sorts: his award-winning debut play Visitors opened there in 2014, as did his well-reviewed follow-up Eventide. This time around Norris has chosen to wrap his arms around both the writer and director roles which, considering the very personal nature of this play, makes perfect sense.
The family drama focuses on five characters: Norris’ grandparents Bert and Peggy, his own parents David and Fiona and his stepfather Rob. In the play’s introduction, he describes this latest work as “a play about memory, not reality”. Even though he was only physically present in three of these scenes and some never happened, “they’re true stories in a slightly different way but to me they’re still true stories”. The idea of an unreliable narrator is not an uncommon trope in modern dramas but here we have an unreliable writer whose imagination interpolates and extrapolates his family’s lives.
The episodic nature of memory is inherent in the play’s structure. Scenes skip years, sometimes decades, as we see David and Fiona’s relationship fall apart, both moving on and starting new families and, all the while, Bert and Peggy popping up to recount wartime stories, help with DIY or relate amusing anecdotes. In his first two plays, Norris showed that he was a keen observer of family dynamics and the changing nature of modern day Britain. Through the lens of his own family, he brings these two aspects of contemporary life together in an attempt to reveal new truths about the way we live (and die) in the twenty-first century.
There is a true tenderness shown here throughout both by the characters to each other and by Norris in his dual role. Even when the mood turns sour – as it does occasionally between Fiona and David – there is a sense that the anger comes from a place of love and affection. The direction is laidback almost to the point of being utterly languid and there are many quietly humorous moments, some of which are intentional (mocking the British fascination with small talk in the absence of anything else to discuss), some perhaps less so (the appearance of grilled panettone served with butter, something that would raise eyebrows from Milan to Messina).
Quiet is very much the word here, for better and worse. Very little of what we see has any sharpness to it and lacks intensity. While Norris knows these characters inside out, there is generally far too little characterisation on the stage for us to truly care about the fate of any of them. The one exception to this is Bert. Robin Soans appeared in Visitors and returns to superbly portray a man who, although happy to play the doting grandfather, is clearly still cruelly afflicted by PTSD over half a century since seeing comrades killed by bombs or mines. His upbeat exterior is sharply contrasted with a terrifying mental anguish which haunts his every quiet moment.
We Started To Sing has some beautiful moments but the writing and direction is too languid especially considering that Norris is describing people and some events that he had intimate knowledge. One is left with the feeling that this less about memory and more a rose-tinted remembrance of a past that fades further from the mind with each passing day. At best, this play passes muster as an occasionally touching fly-by of a family living in the recent past; at worst, it is an indulgent and overlong exercise in personal nostalgia.
We Started To Sing continues at Arcola Theatre until 18 June.