We Started to Sing – Arcola Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Barney Norris

An incredibly personal piece, the premiere of Barney Norris’ new play, We Started to Sing, also marks the reopening of the Arcola Theatre’s indoor spaces after more than two years of sustained closure. An elegiac reflection on the passing of time, the call of rural life and inter-generational expectations, Norris imagines his own paternal family history while absenting himself from the action.

Visiting son David and young wife Fiona in their new home, Bert and Peggy regale her with stories about how they met and what life was like during the Second World War. Years later as their marriage dissolves, David and Fiona find their lives continue to intersect as they navigate career changes, ageing and care of their two sons.

We Started to Sing is an honest, if romantic and sometimes sentimental, imagining of a life that the playwright was part of but also very much predated him. Although all the scenes are set during his lifetime, it also casts backwards, focusing especially on the lifelong love story of his grandparents, the circumstances of their life together and the physical locations of their marriage. This theme of not being able to go back, of wanting to return to a happier time and sense of loss for those youthful days echo through the play.

It is interesting how Norris casts his characters, these semi-fictitious reflections on the people who loved and raised him. As well as adoring his grandparents, it is clear that he respects his father just as much and while absent for some of his childhood, touring as a concert pianist, David is a rational, reasonable and sympathetic man, trying to do the right thing with minimal drama. His mother Fiona, by contrast, is less likeable, a difficult, sometimes argumentative woman who looks to blame others, needing to be appreciated and constantly on the move searching for some kind of peace that never comes.

Robin Soans’s Bert is determinedly old school, disapproving of his family’s choices and clinging to his own practical usefulness both as a war veteran and man who knows how to fix things, a figure whose devotion to his wife and simple happiness grows in the course of the story. Barbara Flynn’s Peggy is less distinct, seeing herself as part of a couple supporting the needs of her family but without a separate voice of her own.

David Ricardo-Pearce gives a subtle performance as Norris’ essentially decent father, frustrated not to spend more time with his children after his divorce but suffering quietly as he tries to get on with his life and support his family’s choices, particularly and proudly caring for his unseen son. Naomi Petersen’s Fiona is arguably the biggest and most out of place character in the show with displays of histrionics and a dreamy approach that only leaves her frustrated.

With a running time of just under two hours across two Acts, time-jump drama We Started to Sing combines scenes that Norris recreates from the stories he presumably heard at every family Christmas and birthday, reimagining conversations that are both true and fictional, combining these with atmospheric song choices and an occasionally misty-eyed feeling of long-lost memory. It is slow sometimes but also filled with meaning about family, heritage and performance. Welcome back to the Arcola.

Runs until 18 June 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Meaningful reopening

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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