Posts Tagged ‘Barney Norris’

I’ve become very fond of Barney Norris’ plays. This is my 5th. They occupy a space all of their own. Concerned with the human condition. Gentle, charming, wistful, poetic. When so much theatre is angry, opinionated & shouty, they are a breath of fresh air.

This one starts slowly as we meet concert pianist David and his wife Fiona, a singer, who’ve just put their young children to bed. David’s elderly parents are coming to the end of a visit. He seems somewhat intolerant of his dad, His wife is fond of both of them. From here we move forward in their lives, through breakups, new relationships, new careers and new homes. Fiona connects with a former colleague and they have a daughter. The (unseen) children grow. The grandparents Bert & Peggy see to be the only constant.

This is a character driven piece, and it wasn’t long before I realised how autobiographical it was; the characters being the playwright’s parents and grandparents. He’s the eldest child. It’s all about growing old, growing apart, growing up, growing close, a very personal presentation of almost thirty years of one family, where music connects the parents generation.

Naomi Petersen is excellent as Fiona, whose journey is the most emotional, and she sings beautifully. It’s a tough call for David Ricardo-Pearce playing his somewhat unsympathetic namesake, but he does it well, with great piano playing too. It’s lovely to see Barbara Flynn and Robin Soans (who was also in Barney Norris’ first play The visitors in the same theatre’s smaller studio) growing old gracefully in lovely roles as grandparents Bert, looking back, and Peggy, looking forward. George Taylor completes the picture as Fiona’s second husband who has to navigate his way into the family.

The inclusion of live music is a great contribution. Norris himself directs, which doesn’t seem to have stopped him telling his family story, warts and all. Don’t expect high drama, but it is a perceptive and moving play which left me thoughtful and reflective; a satisfying study of three generations of a family, which was less fiction and more reality than I was expecting.

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I saw the three previous Barney Norris plays at the Arcola and the Bush, in their smaller spaces, so I was wondering if his unique brand of wistful, poignant charm would survive scaling up to a big London theatre like the Bridge. Half-way through I wasn’t convinced, but by the end I was.

We’re back in rural south England, this time a Hampshire farm. The two years since her husband’s illness and subsequent death have been a struggle for Jenny, her son Ryan, daughter Lou and her boyfriend / Ryan’s best friend Pete. Ryan and Pete were involved in a drunken incident which resulted in Pete’s imprisonment and his split from Lou. The farm, which Ryan is somewhat reluctantly continuing to run, is deep in debt. Ryan and Pete have taken a huge risk by siphoning oil from the pipeline running through the farm (a touch implausibly, I thought). They’re all grieving in different ways.

A hell of a lot more happens in the second half where we see the games people play. We learn that Jenny and Ryan knew more about Pete’s fate than was thought. Lou and Pete rekindle their relationship. Jenny struggles to keep the family together and some of her tactics backfire. We begin to wonder if Ryan’s friendship with Pete, for him, is more than it seems. Lou and Pete make plans to leave and Ryan seeks to persuade his mother to sell up. In the end, the family saga and rural decline come to a rather sad conclusion.

Rae Smith’s design manages to evoke the countryside without losing the intimacy of the individual scenes in yet another different use of the new Bridge space. In thirty-five years of London theatre-going, its the first time I’ve seen a pipeline and actual brick-laying live on stage! All four performances – Claire Skinner as mum, Sion Daniel Young as Ryan, Ophelia Lovibond as Lou and Ukweli Roach as Pete – are excellent. Laurie Sansom’s staging is as fine as we’ve come to expect from him.

Despite an unevenness between the two halves, Norris just about survives the scale-up. To be recommended.

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In just three years, playwright Barney Norris has established himself as a distinctive new voice. His three plays share a warmth and empathy that’s a refreshing contrast to the cynicism and anger of much new writing. He’s the master of ordinariness, and that’s a compliment. His characters are people you know or have met. From dementia to changes in rural life and now to loneliness, he documents the lives of real people in real situations. This couldn’t be more different from the previous night’s play, the uber-cool and uber-cold The Treatment.

Carol lives alone. Her husband is gone and her daughter has gone away. She works in the Electoral Registration Office. She finds Eddie, someone from the past, sleeping rough and offers him a home. She can’t hide her delight in having someone in the house. They reminisce and we learn Eddie has been abroad for eighteen years, before which they were friends, though the full nature of the relationship is unclear. Eddie is a bit of a drifter, a lost soul, with all of his worldly belongings in a few plastic carrier bags. Despite the fact she has a daughter, home and job, Carol is a lost soul too. The arrangement suits them both, but it doesn’t last.

Norris’ writing has a gentle humour, his characters are well drawn and Alice Hamilton brings the same sensitive direction as she did with his previous two plays. Tessa Peace-Jones and Andrew French perform delicately, like they are dancing around one another, with the unsaid communicating almost as much as their speech. I didn’t think it had the depth of the other two plays, partly because it’s only 70 minutes long and partly because it’s a two-hander, but it’s still well worth catching. His plays work particularly well on a small scale in intimate spaces, and it has already been announced that he will have a play in the opening season of Nick Hytner’s new Bridge Theatre – it will be interesting to see something on a much bigger scale.

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Robert Holman must be the least well known prolific playwright of the last forty years. He’s written twenty-four plays, half of which were first produced by august companies and theatres like the RSC, the Royal Court and the Bush, where this 1977 play, his seventh, was first seen. He’s often considered the playwrights playwright. After this, I’ve decided to call him the Guisborough Chekov.

You learn what the title means early on. We’re on that bleak industrial Teeside coastline lined with steel and chemical plants, ships offshore waiting to offload their cargo. Thirty-nine years on, of course, the steelworks is closed and the Wilton petrochemical plant that once employed tens of thousands has been split up and sold off to multiple companies, employing a lot less people. In the middle of this is a birdwatching spot where 59-year-old Martin and twenty-something Jack meet looking for cormorants and oyster catchers.

We learn about Jack’s thwarted ambition (he works at the Wilton chemical plant), where Martin goes for his holidays and about an environmental issue about to threaten the habitat of their beloved birds. We meet Jack’s wife Carol and Martin’s son’s friend Michael. There’s a tragedy offstage. It’s gentle, wistful stuff. I admired the writing. I didn’t quite believe in Jack, but the other characters are well drawn. Director Alice Hamilton has great affinity with plays like this, as she showed with Barney Norris’ The Visitors and Eventide. I liked James Perkins’ clever design. The performances are good. I was under-stimulated and a bit bored, though. For me, it didn’t really go anywhere. It was all a bit dull and unengaging. The Guisborough Chekov.


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I loved playwright Barney Norris’ first full-length play The Visitors and worried it might be hard to follow. Fear not. Though it shares the same gentle thoughtfulness and very well drawn characters, this time we’re watching the changes to rural life through three very different lives.

Set in the back garden of the local pub on the eve of its transfer from independent pub to corporate chain, outgoing publican John chews the fat with a regular and a more occasional customer. Regular Mark is reflecting on his unfulfilled life in a break from rebuilding the war memorial on the day of the funeral of the person who crashed into it. Part-time church organist Liz has popped in on her way to the funeral, as she does whenever she’s booked to play. Amongst other things, we learn why landlord John is moving on and why the day is particularly poignant for Mark. One year later, in the second act, they all really have moved on, but they meet up again because of another event, this time a wedding.

Through these personal stories, we see the changes to these communities. The pub is still at the heart of the village, but perhaps without its heart. People travel from elsewhere to work here as they can’t afford to live here anymore. Everyone moves on, but with different degrees of satisfaction and fulfilment. I found it wistful and reflective, beautifully written and sympathetically staged by Alice Hamilton. The three performances are all lovely. James Doherty plays John as a jokey host on the surface, but lets us see the intelligence and sadness beneath. Hasan Dixon shows Mark lacking in the confidence to make the bold decisions facing him, struggling to leave behind the past that he cannot change. Ellie Piercy’s Liz reveals less of herself as she listens and draws out the men with great empathy.

A lovely gentle satisfying evening that proves Barney Norris is no one-play wonder.


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You’d be forgiven for thinking a play about dementia would be heavy going, but the subject is handled so sensitively, with delicate humour, in this Barney Norris play that it’s enthralling and uplifting rather than depressing.

In a farm close to Salisbury, Arthur and Edie are in their twilight years. Arthur still runs the farm, but Edie is beginning to suffer from dementia. A carer, Katie, arrives and bonds quickly with both of them. Their son Stephen visits, an unhappy man with a marriage close to breakdown. He’s trying to be pragmatic, but it comes out as cold. We follow the course of Edie’s illness and her son’s marriage breakdown to the point where Edie needs a care home and Stephen a new home.

Stephen clumsily attempts to connect with the much younger Kate and seems deeply envious of his parents love. The contrast between the warmth of Edie and Arthur’s love for one another, inseparable since first meeting many years ago, plus Kate’s closeness with the couple and Stephen’s loveless marriage and total lack of emotional intelligence is extraordinary.

This is all beautifully acted. The incomparable Linda Bassett is wonderful as Edie and her and Robin Soans’ Arthur have such chemistry they seem like a real couple. Eleanor Wyld is lovely as the unlikely but affectionate carer Kate. It must be very hard for Simon Muller to play against all this empathy but he does so brilliantly, with his eventual show of emotion both surprising and shattering.

Fransesca Riedy’s simple design has great intimacy, bringing you right into their home, with a backdrop of shelves housing the memories of a whole life and there’s a real attention to detail in Chloe Courtney’s impeccable direction.

This is a surprisingly lovely show.

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