Review: We Started to Sing, at Arcola Theatre

Friday, 3rd June — By Lucy Popescu

David Ricardo-Pearce photo Alex Brenner

David Ricardo-Pearce in We Started to Sing. Photo: Alex Brenner

BARNEY Norris’s latest play is a tender paean to his paternal grandparents and a bittersweet exploration of his estranged parents’ troubled relationship.

Norris appears in the drama by name – initially an invisible child off stage, later an adult writing a play to preserve his memories – and yet feels present throughout. As he notes in the programme: remembering his family is “the only way I know to say I love them”.

His grandparents, Peggy (Barbara Flynn) and Bert (Robin Soans), enjoyed a long, happy marriage. Their son David (David Ricardo-Pearce) finds it hard to express his emotions and is consumed by his career as a professional concert pianist. He leaves his wife Fiona (Naomi Petersen) and two young boys to tour America and doesn’t return for some time.

Norris is adept at making ordinary lives compelling. I was a great admirer of his debut Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain. In We Started to Sing the stories are softer, less thorny and occasionally feel overly ponderous.

His mother meets and settles down with Rob (George Taylor). He’s kinder than David and more attuned to her needs.

Norris celebrates the British countryside – his family move through Sussex, Wiltshire, Northamptonshire and Wales – but there’s too much tea drinking and nipping to the loo; it leaches all tension from the piece and the exits and entrances often feel self-conscious.

Otherwise, the staging is atmospheric. Family videos are projected onto the back wall and scenes are punctuated with beautiful musical interludes on the piano – including Elgar, Purcell and Britten – to indicate the passing of time.

We Started to Sing will appeal to those who like a quieter, more reflective family drama. It’s refreshing to see a work focused on older characters and Flynn and Soans give poignant performances. It’s also joyous to return to the Arcola’s main space after two long years.

Until June 18
arcolatheatre.com

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