Arcola Theatre, London (**)
Barney Norris’ Neighbours was one of the sleeper successes of last year, a beautifully judged rhapsody on a theme of marital/family despair and dementia in the countryside. It garnered awards galore after its success at the Bush. But it started out life here at Mehmet Ergen’s Arcola `powerhouse’ in Dalston.
Now Mehmet’s commissioned a further rural elegy and much as I’d like to enthuse I found it less absorbing than Visitors. Perhaps it is something to do with the way Norris has organised his material, plunging us immediately into the long-winded jokey repertoire of John, Hampshire pub landlord on the eve of selling up and losing his way of life.
In one sense it’s a clever ruse on Norris’s part. Jokes, as so often, are John’s defence against the reality of a world that is crashing around him. His sad unravelling is really what takes centre stage here – the forlorn, bereft look on James Doherty’s face as of a tide gone out the thing that lingers most in the memory.
But too often, Norris’s dialogue, delivered sometimes in dense, over-worked speeches, sounds more literary than theatrical as if it would be more at home on the page, perhaps not entirely coincidental with Norris first novel coming out shortly.
Beside John’s personal trauma, there are delicate interlacings of two of John’s customers, Mark and Liz – Mark on the eve of his wedding, Liz, the church organist doing voluntary work with the elderly.
Norris is a dab hand at identifying social awkwardness, frustration and again quiet despair. Apart from John, Mark and Liz’s inner turmoils are conveyed lightly, without much fanfare although Liz is given the odd unexpected thoughts on the meaning and place of the church leading to the most touching moment of the evening – Liz and John humming `Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ – abruptly terminated with John’s misunderstanding of Liz’s expectations.
Hasan Dixon and Ellie Piercy make affecting symbols of ordinary individuals at the crossroads. But Bea Roberts’ recent And Then Come the Nightjars (Theatre503) and in earlier times, Robert Holman have perhaps more appealingly caught those imperceptible shifts of the human heart in changing times.
Eventide is at the Arcola to Oct 17, 2015
First published in Reviewsgate, Sept 2015