Posts Tagged ‘Robin Soans’

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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Playwright Andrea Dunbar had a short but eventful life. The girl from a family of seven on a Bradford council estate wrote her first play in school aged 15 and saw it staged at the Royal Court three years later. Two years after that this second autobiographical play was staged at the Royal Court, adapted as a major film five years later. She died aged twenty-nine having given birth to three children as well as three plays. Little did she know how controversial a revival of her play would be twenty-seven years on.

I didn’t see the original production, but I did see a 2000 revival when it was paired with Robin Soans’ A State Affair, a verbatim piece researched on the same council estate showing its then contemporary problems. All three productions were instigated by Max Stafford-Clark, first as director of the Royal Court, then as director as Out of Joint. Claims of alleged sexual harassment by him, plus the subject matter of the play, led to the Royal Court cancelling its stop on the tour, but subsequent claims of censorship resulted in its reinstatement.

The controversy proves rather more fascinating than the play. It’s a period piece, like visiting a behavioural museum, a bit like those TV series Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. If you look at it through a 21st century lens, it’s very uncomfortable. Two fifteen-year-old girls are enticed into having sex with the man they babysit for and are both soon having affairs with him, unbeknown to one another. After a while, the tables are turned and they are very much in control, and in competition with one another. The attitudes of Bob’s wife (if its presented on a plate he wouldn’t be a man if he didn’t take it) and Sue’s mother (it’s all Rita’s fault) are no doubt historically authentic but depressing.

The performances are terrific, though the staging sometimes seemed a bit stilted. I veered from uncomfortable to intrigued to voyeuristic to enthralled to indignant to fascinated to disbelieving. I came to the conclusion the play just could’t carry the weight of all the controversy and resultant expectations. It was of its time and may be best seen as a period piece, ground-breaking in its day, but more of a curiosity today. Then again, with contemporary cases of grooming on a wholesale scale, Weinstein and #MeToo, and in particular people’s propensity to turn a blind eye, maybe the message is nothing’s changed, its just different.

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This is such a heart warming, hopeful play and so much more than the story of Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas coming out. Robin Soans verbatim piece links his story with the Bridgend teenage suicides and the economic woes of South Wales post-pit closures to produce something that is moving and entertaining in equal measure.

In addition to Thomas’ own testimony, Soans includes the words of his mother, father and best friend Compo and recognises the contributions of former Welsh coach Scott Johnson and fellow players Martyn Williams and Steve Jones. The teenage stories of survivors Darcey and Meryl are interwoven and we also meet Bridgend MP Madeleine Moon and Neil Kinnock. It’s extraordinary how the stories feel as if they belong together – the man and his home town, both bruised, both hounded by the paparazzi and the gutter press, but both survivors with their dignity intact, with laudable support from families, friends, colleagues and communities, moving on by helping others.

Robin Soans editing of his interviews and Max Stafford-Clark’s impeccable direction, with movement by Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham, brings out the humour and humanity of the stories. It hops around in time and between the stories yet it seems completely cohesive. Six actors – Rhys ap William, Patrick Brennan, Katie Elin-Salt, Daniel Hawksford, Lauren Roberts and Bethan Whitcomb – play the principal roles plus all others, each taking turns at playing Gareth Thomas. They engage you in eye contact, which makes you feel as if the story is being told to you personally.

It brought more than one tear to my eye, but I left the Arcola on a real high, more than a little bit proud to be Welsh. Three of Britain’s most exciting theatre companies have come together to produce something very special indeed. Don’t miss it.

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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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