While We’re Here

Bush Theatre Studio, London (****)

© Mark Douet, Andrew French (Eddie) and Tessa Peake-Jones (Carol)

© Mark Douet, Andrew French (Eddie) and Tessa Peake-Jones (Carol)

Walking back from the Bush the other evening, I glanced back at the Green and remembered the years when the one-room `Bush’ hovered above a far from welcoming pub, up some uncomfortable and cranky stairs. For years and years.

But how things change. With its £4.3million transformation safely in the bag and a bristling new and enlarged auditorium, the Bush can now also boast a small studio theatre. And to launch it, a welcome return to Barney Norris.

Norris’s last appearance in Uxbridge Rd with the appropriately named Visitors, garlanded all manner of awards. It was indeed a fairly exquisite portrait of the onset of dementia set amidst rural, family and marital intimacies, made the more so by the presence of Linda Bassett and Robin Soans.

Norris’s Up in Arms company has since gone on to stage other vignettes of ordinary people struggling to make sense of their lives in a style, given that Norris is also a Peter Gill fan (he wrote a study of Gill’s work, To Bodies Gone) that is not afraid to make something extraordinary out of the ordinary.

Thus it also is with While We’re Gone. Set in the unappetising purlieus of Havant – it can’t even pride itself on `an award-winning car park’, a high-water mark for urban trendiness according to Norris’s home-loving council worker, Carol – it is a two-hander that again, in its modest way, touches some raw nerves of reality.

© Mark Douet, Tessa Peake-Jones (Carol) and Andrew French (Eddie), trying to work it out...

© Mark Douet, Tessa Peake-Jones (Carol) and Andrew French (Eddie), trying to work it out…

Carol, in her own words is `hefted’, meaning once a Havant girl, always a Havant girl. `Did you never want to get away from this place?’ asks her puzzled house guest, Eddie.

Eddie and Carol are the most unlikely couple – the home bird and the drifter. Yet they have something going between them: past memories of an office liaison that never quite fully blossomed.

Sometimes the coincidence of their meeting up again and Carol’s unnerving trust in inviting Eddie, apparently sleeping rough, to stay hovers on the implausible.

© Mark Douet, Andrew French (Eddie), Tessa Peake-Jones (Carol) - what might have been...

© Mark Douet, Andrew French (Eddie), Tessa Peake-Jones (Carol) – what might have been…

But Norris’s gradual peeling away of Carol and Eddie’s characters, their hidden dreams and desires, is touching and true as well as the way he situates it in our recognisable world with references to the NHS, social welfare and even the somewhat gruesome phenomenon of incest abuse cases.

It is perhaps debatable whether a character like Eddie, fostered out, a rover who picks up work wherever he can, whether scrap metal in Portsmouth or the oil rigs of Nigeria and Norway, would be acquainted enough with Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman to tell it to Carol as a symbol of their relationship.

© Mark Douet, Tessa Peake-Jones (Carol) - alone again...

© Mark Douet, Tessa Peake-Jones (Carol) – alone again…

But such is the delicacy Norris’s writing and the beautiful, pin-point performances from Tessa Peake-Jones and Andrew French – `sometimes I feel I’m the only black man in Havant’ – this flawed tale of stunted, walled in emotions, of roads not taken, and lives not fulfilled, hits home with its own persuasive, sad force.

A eulogy to the parochial and disappointed. 

While We’re Here
A new play by Barney Norris

Eddie: Andrew French
Carol: Tessa Peake-Jones

Director: Alice Hamilton
Designer: James Perkins
Lighting Designer: Sally Ferguson
Composer and Sound Designer: Dom Coyote


Presented by Up in Arms, the Bush Theatre and Farnham Maltings
Premiere of While We’re Here at Bush Theatre Studio, London April 26, 2017.

Runs to May 27, then tours to The North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford (June 5-8), Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol (June 9-10), The Spring Arts Centre, Havant (June 13-14), Salisbury Playhouse (June 15-17).

This review first published on this site, April 30, 2017