We Started To Sing

Arcola Theatre


Playwright Barney Norris’ acutely personal portrait of his family - three decades of key moments in his parents' and grandparents' marriages – is a good choice to re-open the Arcola after two years of Pandemic-induced closure.

While Norris uses the real names of family members, We Started to Sing is a hybrid of re-imagined truth and interpretation, a naturalistic play with a splash of heightened realism to leaven the mix of disappointment over a dissolving marriage.

The play casts back to scenes from Norris’ childhood at which he was not present. So much mined intimacy could easily tip into naval-gazing self-therapy. With the exception of his raconteur war-hero grandfather, Bert - beautifully played by Robin Soans - it’s not as if Norris’ family has spectacularly interesting stories. Like all the characters, Bert wrestles with the conflict of looking back without quite knowing how to move forward.

Norris’ singer mother Fiona (Naomi Petersen) can’t settle for a marriage in which her over-rational concert pianist husband David (David Ricardo-Pearce) prioritises his career. But her subsequent relationship with his polar-opposite Rob (George Taylor), an odd-jobbing drifter, is not so breezy either.

Peggy (Barbara Flynn) has supported Bert throughout 70 years of marriage but old-age brings its tensions. Norris also directs and the set of a piano with rural projections is spot-on. At times characters sing as if consoling themselves, and classical music - Elgar, Purcell, Britten - links reality with the spiritual as they reach, with hands outstretched, for the past, or future, or beyond the grave as if in premonition of their own mortality.

It doesn’t always work. It's not that interesting to watch divorcees interact and the dialogue can be wearisome, although Norris does bring a neat wit to the middle-class detail of tea cosies clamped over teapots, and obsequiously polite requests to ‘borrow loos’ after lengthy car drives.

There is a raw honesty to Norris’ desire to fathom how he connects to the people who made him - and the hurt he conveys over his grandparents’ ageing decline is painfully affecting.

We Started to Sing runs at The Arcola in Dalston until June 18. Visit www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/we-started-to-sing/