A Nightingale Sang in Eldon Square

C P Taylor
Live Theatre, Newcastle
(2006)

(L to R) David Whitaker, Laura Norton, Judi Earl, Victoria Elliott

Cecil Taylor wrote A Nightingale Sang... for Live Theatre in 1977 and now the company has revived it, nearly thirty years later and just before the theatre goes dark for a few months for major renovation and refurbishment. Coincidentally I had re-read the play about eighteen months ago and felt it has just as much to say today as it had then. But reading a play and seeing it produced is not the same thing, and I confess to being curious to see if my conclusions on re-reading it applied equally to a performance.

The play is thirty years old and is set in the Newcastle of thirty years or so before that, from the day war broke out (thank you, Robb Wilton!) to VE Day, and follows the fortunes of the Stott family from Walker in Newcastle: mam, da, granda, daughters Helen and Joyce and their men, respectively Norman from Glasgow and local lad Eric. If we have to categorise it, it would probably be as a bitter-sweet domestic comedy but that is to under-sell it. It is firmly rooted in working class life and values, with the somewhat ambiguous position of women in a society which was firmly patriarchal but also, in the North Eastern working class, thoroughly matriarchal.

Its characters are real people - for Taylor character came before everything else - with their contradictions and uncertainties, for whom the author clearly felt, and manipulates us into sharing, a deep understanding and even love. And this, of course, is what makes certain that the play will never date. It touches on family, relationships, religion, war (of course) and love, as well as individual foibles., he creates, indeed, a rich world in this one family.

And it has to be said that Live pulls it off magnificently. Under Max Roberts' direction, on a very simple but flexible set by Nigel Hook, sympathetically lit by Malcolm Rippeth, the cast of Live regulars and newcomers give a funny but deeply moving interpretation of Taylor's text.

David Whitaker, one of Live's founder members, is Da, the little man dominated by his wife, who retreats into gruff kind of humour when faced with strong emotion and whose roles as ARP warden and shop steward give him a sense of self-worth. And he plays a mean piano too! As for Judy Earl as Mam, she is precisely the sort of woman whom I remember so clearly from my childhood in the 40s. Both give fine performances.

As Granda, Donald McBride is the central comic character of the play. Taylor gives him the funniest lines and MacBride seizes each of them with gusto, giving a nicely judged performance which verges on pantomime but never steps over the line.

The two younger men are well contrasted. Micky Cochrane is Eric. Starting as a somewhat tongue-tied eager suitor, when he marries Joyce, the younger of the two sisters, he develops a that kind of aggressiveness which is an attempt to compensate for insecurity. Cochrane is totally convincing in the way he gives us glimpses of the uncertain young man underneath. As Norman, Steven Duffy gives us a portrait of vulnerable young man deeply in love but equally deeply troubled by secrets which he wants to reveal but cannot bring himself to. HIs gacial expressions in the scene in which he dances with Helen convey his whole character beautifully.

Victoria Elliott plays Joyce, the pretty younger sister. Not terribly bright and never really knowing what she wants, she desperately wants others to tell her what to do, but the events of the play force her to make and live with her decisions, and thus she begins to mature. Elliott captures the character in depth, clearly showing the feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty behind the heavily made-up face.

It truly is a fine cast, with not a weak link (or even a minor weakness) anywhere, but the night really belongs to Laura Norton, who plays the older sister Helen, the girl who is crippled and who never thought she would attract a man ("If I walked down Shields Road... naked... no man would look at us twice," she says). Her performance was superb, capturing every subtlety of the character and especially her growth in maturity and understanding. She made her professional debut at Live in Smack Family Robinson by Richard Bean in 2003 - she clearly has a great future ahead of her.

A Nightingale Sang is definitely not to be missed!

Runs until 29th April.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan