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We Started to Sing (Susan Elkin reviews)

Show: We Started To Sing

Society: Arcola Theatre (professional)

Venue: Arcola Theatre. 24 Ashwin Street, London E8 3DL

Credits: Written and directed Barney Norris

We Started To Sing

3  stars

Critics, actors and teachers of acting often talk about “truthfulness” in drama. Well, although it’s not quite what such people mean, you couldn’t have anything much more truthful than this play which is overtly about the playwright’s parents and grandparents. Even the names are unchanged. Barney Norris admits in his Author’s Note in the Faber edition, which doubles as a programme, that he wasn’t present at most of these scenes and that some of them “never exactly happened – they’re true stories in a slightly different way”. Or as one long-dead character says just before the end “Then am I here in someone’s dream? Someone doesn’t want me to have gone” to which the rueful reply is “My son is writing us”.

The problem with all this slippery truthfulness is that there’s no real plot. It’s simply a series of scenes set across 30 years in which we see an elderly couple whose son is a professional pianist along with his wife and, later, her second husband. There is tension – of course – and a great deal of wistfulness along with anger, anxiety and frustration. It’s beautifully observed but nothing much happens beyond two people getting very old and a marriage breaking up – pretty ordinary family life, in fact. Norris is probably smiling at himself when his father David (David Ricardo Pearce) tells his grandmother Peggy (Barbara Flynn) about Barney’s first project after university: “There are these people, who meet each other. And they sit around. And then one of them dies. And that’s it really … It’s got songs.”

There is some very good acting, though. Flynn endows Peggy with common sense and sensitivity and skilfully ages her with body language over 30 years. As her practical, straight talking husband, Bert, Robin Soans makes it absolutely clear that he adores his wife while boring the pants off his family with World War Two anecdotes. Ricardo-Pearce is totally convincing as David – trying to be reasonable, often in the face of difficulty and he does awkwardness as well as I’ve ever seen it done on stage. As Fiona, initially David’s wife, Naomi Petersen does with aplomb  the transition from young, happily married woman with a singing career to middle-aged second wife running choirs in the Welsh borders. And George Taylor finds stillness and warmth in the ever decent Rob who takes on David’s two children and has a daughter of his own with Fiona.

Because this play is about a musical family, the cast are all musically adept.  David (David Owen-Norris) has a successful career as a pianist, composer, broadcaster and teacher so the casting director did well to find an actor who could play the piano as well as Ricardo-Pearce does. The play is interspersed with music including a moving account of Dido’s Lament sung by Petersen with Ricardo-Pearce at the piano. And there’s a lovely moment when all five characters join together in a full harmony version of Sullivan’s The Long Day Closes as they busy themselves with tidying the stage.

It’s an enjoyable two hours which gets under your skin even if it makes you feel voyeuristic as you watch actors as “real” people working through the private issues of everyday life. I’m not surprised, though, to read in the Author’s Note that Norris was estranged from his brother for several years because “we disagreed over the ethics of telling”.

First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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