Barney Norris has written a personal play about family life and the passing of time. “These are my parents and grandparents,” he states in his script’s introduction. Writing them, he adds, is “the only way I know how to love them”.
That love shows. As an ode to family, We Started to Sing is full of tenderness. As a play, it feels fragmented and anticlimactic. There is simply not enough plot or conflict. Maybe it is too close to home; what seems to be missing is Graham Greene’s “splinter of ice”.
Scenes are infused with affection but there is no substantially darker, sharper side to his characters. And whatever family tensions there are between them are subsumed by greater warmth. That, in the end, is the problem with this delicately crafted play, which seems like a series of sweet or poignant scenes.
Also directed by Norris, its pace is meditative but undramatic despite instances that seem almost to veer towards an alternate reality – characters freeze or reach out theatrically and atmospheric music raises expectations – but nothing comes of it.
Grandparents Bert (Robin Soans) and Peggy (Barbara Flynn) remember the war at the start and recount how they met. Their musician son, David (David Ricardo-Pearce), occasionally rolls his eyes but his wife, Fiona (Naomi Petersen) listens raptly. There is piano playing, red wine and conviviality.
Each scene brings a jump in time: Fiona and David separate, a new partner comes along in Rob (George Taylor), children grow up, grandparents die. Characters speak of ageing and mortality but this cannot make up for the lack of story and neither is it particularly profound.
There is one fractious scene that stands out when David and Fiona, now separated, discuss their son Barney’s bad behaviour. Fiona explodes with resentment and this flashpoint sparks with tension and intensity. More of this is required but we are quickly back to placid scenes.
There are many beautiful qualities to this production, nevertheless. The visually arresting back-screens that project family films (video design is by Megan Lucas). Atmospheric musical interludes that include a cello concerto by Elgar arranged for the piano, and a rendition of Dido’s Lament by Purcell. A powerful scene that shows Bert scared and irascible towards the end of his life. Memories that are shown to be tied to geography – streets and houses that become receptacles, maybe even proof, of past lives. There is an acute observation of English manners and emotional repression, too, with much tea-drinking and talking about the weather. These exchanges capture all that can’t be said and feel distinctly English.
Later mentions of Barney, who remains off stage, brings meta moments: Peggy says he is “writing us” and characters look around, momentarily conscious of being inside a play. Bert adds that this drama is about people who sit around and one of them dies – which feels apt as a summary for what we see on stage.
We Started to Sing is at the Arcola, London, until 18 June.