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We Started To Sing at the Arcola Theatre

After being closed for over two years due to covid, the Arcola Theatre has re-opened with Barney Norris’s love song to the people who raised him, We Started To Sing marking seven years since the writer made his name at the same theatre with Visitors.

We Started To Sing, Barbara Flynn, Robin Soans. (c) Alex Brenner.
We Started To Sing, Barbara Flynn, Robin Soans. (c) Alex Brenner.

On a fairly bare stage featuring an upright piano and a few chairs, We Started To Sing tells the story of David (played by David Ricardo-Pearce), his parents Peggy (Barbara Flynn), Bert (Robin Soans), his wife Fiona (Naomi Petersen) and Rob (George Taylor) who becomes Fiona’s partner after she and David divorce. The play has a linear progression at the beginning but it soon plays with space and time as the story unfolds. At the beginning, David and Fiona and their two sons seem blissfully happy but as time goes by, we see that this is not the case. In parallel with their story, we see Peggy and Burt ageing into their nineties and
slowly fading away into death and David’s imagination.

At times the dialogue is fairly mundane and a little dull, examining the minutiae of one family’s lives and the various relationships and dynamics between the various family members. It’s all very episodic and it’s hard to find any context as to where we are within the narrative as we watch lives change, locations move and relationships undulate. They tell each other stories sometimes repetitiously, especially in Bert’s case where his emotion comes to the fore as he tells tales about his experiences in World Ward 2. For most of the play, the tone is melancholic with the various characters dealing with marriage break-ups, problems with recalcitrant teenagers, getting old and generally having to cope with what life throws at them as well as coping with the past and how it has affected their lives making them the people they are.

The acting from the five cast members is excellent with Barbara Flynn’s Peggy looking on with love and acceptance as the superb Robin Soans steals the show as the verbose Bert who spins his tall tales and makes his corny jokes. Ricardo-Pearce, Petersen and Taylor all give fine performances but the two older actors are the standouts.

During the play, there’s extensive use of video which is projected on a curtain at the back of the stage and might be of Norris’s own family but it’s really hard to tell as the curtain breaks up the image. Not surprising in a piece called We Started To Sing, there’s singing with Purcell’s ‘Dido’s Lament”, Sullivan’s “Long Day Closes and the traditional “She Moves Through The Fair” sung by various members of the cast. There’s also some excellent piano playing from Ricardo-Pearce including pieces from Elgar and Britten.

As you’d expect from a playwright of Norris’s stature it’s extremely well written with pithy dialogue, the occasional meta-theatre comments and literary allusions scattered throughout. There’s also the use of shadows thrown on the curtain towards the end, possibly suggesting Homer’s “We are but dust and shadow” quotation. It’s an intensely personal piece of theatre and as Norris says in his author’s note in the front of the play text “These are my parents and grandparents. My rendering of them may vary wildly from who they really are, or were, because this is a play about memory, not reality”.

The problem with the piece is twofold. It’s overlong and wordy at over two hours and some of the staging doesn’t work; from my view in the balcony, I was unable to see some of the characters when they were talking. Perhaps the director slice of Norris should have a word with the author slice and cut out a scene or two and the writer part of Norris should have a word with the director part and sort out the staging so the action is visible to everyone in the audience.

We Started To Sing obviously means a lot to Norris and parts of it will resonate with all of us and our relationships with our families and how we interact with them over time. However, at its current length, it’s just too long to engage the audience throughout and stop the boredom setting in.

3 Star Review

Review by Alan Fitter

I wish there could be a day where families came together and just said it all to each other. Because then everyone would know it all, and there’d be nothing left to hurt anyone.
Sussex. London. Wiltshire. Northamptonshire. Wales. Over three decades, a family spreads across the country, and the chord they once made together starts to fray. How will the distance growing between them change the music of their lives?

Written and Directed by BARNEY NORRIS
Cast: Barbara Flynn, David Ricardo-Pearce, Naomi Petersen, George Taylor and Robin Soans.
Frankie Bradshaw (Designer); Bethany Gupwell (Lighting Designer); Jamie Lu (Sound Designer);
Josephine Tremelling (Production Manager)
19 May – 18 June 2022

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