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.

Fiona in We Started to Sing, by Barney Norris

© Alex Brenner

For just over 2 long years, the doors of the Arcola Theatre in Dalston have been closed. That changed last week when previews began of We Started to Sing. Last night I attended the Press Night, to watch the world premiere of the play and to also celebrate the Arcola’s official reopening.

We Started to Sing is written by Barney Norris, he has created a play about his family. Norris explains that in a four year period many things happened that he couldn’t make sense of. To help him, he decided to write a play – which provided him a sort of therapy. He also directs the play.

The stage has a piano upon it, and three wooden chairs. Behind these there is a white curtain – very quickly you realise it is not just a white curtain, but a screen for Megan Lucas’ video design. As family videos and are projected upon it, as well as photos of different locations to help set the scene.

We’re soon introduced to the characters; Bert (Robin Soans) and Peggy (Barbara Flynn) are an older couple, who are visiting their son David (David Ricardo-Pearce) and his wife Fiona (Naomi Petersen). They are sat in the garden sharing a bottle of red, with Bert reminiscing of the war.

We then fast forward, I’m unsure how much time has passed, but David and Fiona are now separated. David is in the States, Fiona is moving house, David’s parents are helping her move.

© Alex Brenner

The play fast forwards a number of times. These time jumps make the play rather confusing to follow. Especially because the same actors play the characters throughout – so you’re never really sure how many years have actually passed.

Bert and Peggy reminded me of my own grandparents, the way they speak to each other and bicker. Their characters feel authentic and their performances are good considering what little material they are given to work with. My issue with the play is not with the cast, who all give great performances throughout – it’s simply that there is not enough of a story here.

Tea makes an appearance throughout the play. There is an awkward, fraught scene between David and Fiona’s new husband Rob (George Taylor). Within it the two of them are sharing a pot of tea, the conversation is tense and fragmented. Richardo-Pierce’s performance is brilliant within this scene. You can really feel how tense and awkward this interaction is for the character of David via Richardo-Pierce’s mannerisms and body language.

The play is a love letter to Norris’ family, that much is true. Does it make for a great play? The answer is no. There’s just not enough drama here, which doesn’t make the show an exciting one to watch. I can’t fault the cast, the performances are great, particularly those of Flynn and Soans.

I feel Norris was aiming to show authenticity within his characters and the story. The characters did feel authentic in ways, as I’ve mentioned I saw my own grandparents within Bert and Peggy. Unfortunately he didn’t do enough with those authentic characters throughout the show. The play felt unorganised and a bit rambly.

There is music throughout the play as Fiona is a singer and David is a concert pianist – and whilst these are lovely they do not save the play from its tediosity.

This play doesn’t make any new revelations about life. There’s also no real climax, the play simply plods along through different time periods. Whole sagas could be written about certain families, and have been before. But this family is not one of them. The only thing that really happens in this play is that Norris’ parents separate and let’s be honest, it’s not a groundbreaking storyline to build a nearly 2 hour show around. We Started to Sing also didn’t have a satisfying ending. Although it didn’t have a satisfying beginning or middle either to be honest.

I can’t fault the performances, particularly as they are working with such little material – but this play didn’t work for me, and it’s not one I’d hurry back to.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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