REVIEW: Eventide, Arcola Theatre Studio 2 ✭✭✭

Eventide by Barney Norris
Hasan Dixon and James Doherty in Eventide. Photo: Mark Douet.

Arcola Theatre, Studio 2
3 Stars
Buy Tickets

In a recent review of And Then Come the Nightjars at Theatre 503 I remarked on how few new plays there are about life in the English countryside. I am very glad to report therefore that Barney Norris’ new play at the Arcola offers fresh meditations on these themes, and especially on the difficulties of accommodating to change and loss in a world where continuity and tradition are key.

Norris is not a stranger to this territory. His fine first play, Visitors, produced at the Bush Theatre last year, was also placed in a rural setting, and much of the quiet, perceptive, meditative melancholy that suffused that study of marriage in old age is also on display here to good advantage.

The studio space in the Arcola has been filled with the decking and benches of a pub, The White Horse. It is a tight fit, and the audience is very close to the action. It forms the location for a series of conversations between the three characters of the play: John, the middle-aged landlord (James Doherty), his friend Mark (Hasan Dixon) an odd-jobs man, and an itinerant church organist Liz (Ellie Piercy).

The three characters have at least two themes in common – they have all been damaged by loss of a loved one and all wish to keep their current lives in the same even tenor. John wants to keep up the pub despite declining business and accumulating debt; Mark is content with a routine of minor repair jobs to pay the rent, and Liz find satisfaction in playing for church services alongside and as an escape from her work as music teacher in the nearest city. The rhythms of the countryside are seen to have value in themselves and also as a balm or palliative or defence against accumulated hurt and harm from past relationships and the knocks and scuffs of life.

Eventide by Barney Norris
James Doherty in Eventide. Photo: Mark Douet

Beneath their conversations lies the insistent message that church and pub and village community continue to play important roles in the modern world as timeless symbols of value and worth with which people who have become lost in their own personal lives can identify. Within this safe cocoon of inherited meaning safe space can be found for recovery and reinvention of identity. Therein lies the enduring value and validation of rural life that is no longer an economic given.

However, this is not to be.

In terms of plot and action nothing much happens. But underneath the chat, badinage and reminiscence of past episodes in their lives change is afoot that cannot be halted or reversed. John is too far in debt and drink to save the pub, and there is every indication that the kind of community spirit he enabled and encouraged there will not continue in his absence. Not least because a chain is taking over the pub, and the big house that used to be at the centre of village life is now owned by a property developer who has sold off all the farmland. Liz comes to the village fewer and fewer times as work dries up at the church, and weddings and funerals move elsewhere. Mark cannot find regular work either and wonders how he can make ends meet, and whether travel is the answer. Symbols and institutions are changing and losing their connective power to the individual and are no longer capable of defining and shaping the community.

While the overall picture is gloomy, it’s not all despair. Each of the characters finds a fresh inner toughness by the end of the play that offers new possibilities to develop talents they did not know they had. It is the village rather than the characters whose future ultimately seems most in doubt.

Director Alice Hamilton sets a gentle pace for the action – we are drawn into the play insinuatingly rather than by kinetic dynamism or dramatic movement. Norris writes very plausible naturalistic dialogue that is filled out most ably by his actors. There are also some finely wrought soliloquies to vary the pace. The interval comes as something of a jolt and left me with the strong impression that the play would be much better to be seen at a single sitting without breaking the delicate spell. There would also be less need for the implausible turn in the relationship between John and Liz that takes place on the edge of the interval, which has the same jarring effect as the melodramatic ending of a Victorian serialised novel.

The acting is mostly very effective. These parts are gifts to character actors with imagination, and each of the cast members gives a fully rounded portrayal with body language in tune with vocal inflection. Doherty’s outward swagger and blokeish self-confidence, conceals a great deal of pain and inner anxiety, which is very moving when made manifest. Hasan manages to convey a lot of pent-up anger and frustration. His character is not emotionally expressive until late on in the play, but technically he does a fine job in persuading us that his silence and passivity is not inert and conceals a great deal. Piercy’s bony, jerky, awkward physical gestures tell us before the plot and narrative do that she is striving to overcome an inner hurt that threatens to overwhelm her.

Eventide by Barney Norris at the Arcola Theatre
Hasan Dixon and James Doherty in Eventide. Photo: Mark Douet.

In the second half there is some emoting that seems in excess of the facts, but this is also because there are a number of less convincing developments or threatened developments in the lives of the characters that do not carry the same conviction of tone and dynamic that we see in the deftly drawn earlier scenes of the play. While one is not looking for a neat tying up of loose ends the final points of repose for these characters are not, to my mind, quite in synch with where the burden of the earlier writing had directed them.

I think the main problem here is with the character of Liz who for too much of the earlier action has to be the patient, relatively passive, listener to the grieving of the two men. When her own character is sketched in more clearly towards the end it is too late and the part remains underwritten and incomplete in comparison with the other two. A rebalancing of the play or perhaps the introduction of another female character could have corrected this problem.

This is a genial, quietly satisfying set of reflections on how hard rural life can be and how mostly distant it has always been from any kind of Arcadian idyll or vision of pastoral. Rates of depression and suicide are higher in rural than in urban Britain and in its gently insistent way this play provides valuable, sober insights for those of us living in towns as to how and why this should be so.

Eventide runs at the Arcola Theatre until the 17th October 2015

Share via
Send this to a friend