Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Parlour Song

Jez Butterworth
York Theatre Royal Studio
(2011)

Parlour Songproduction photo

Jez Butterworth's 2008 play, Parlour Song, touches on the dark heart of suburbia. The writer, recently repopularised thanks to the enormous success of the roughly contemporaneous Jerusalem, owes a clear debt to Pinter. Here the Pinteresque is to be found in the characters' submerged violence, fits of lyricism and obliquely expressed but irresistibly powerful sexuality.

The stage is cleverly designed (by Gem Greaves), with the detritus of half a lifetime spent in one small house crammed underneath a number of raised platforms representing Ned and Joy's small suburban semi. However, the use of screens dotted around the stage feels somewhat superfluous. Apart from their promising introduction in the first scene, they merely announce significant lines from the forthcoming scene, in a distracting rather than Brechtian manner.

Likewise, the play itself starts promisingly, opening up a number of threads which evocatively sketch the darkness behind suburban façades of barbecues and Scrabble. There is a sense that Ned (Simeon Truby) might be losing it, though what exactly 'it' is does not become clear until later. But the text and performances, while strong enough, fail to ramp up tension and engage the audience in quite the manner required.

The three actors, all familiar from the Theatre Royal's current ensemble season, acquit themselves well but unspectacularly. Most impressive is Truby, utterly transformed from his turns in The Crucible and My Family and Other Animals. But the comedy is somewhat grossly played at times, meaning the play veers towards the worst of Ayckbourn rather than the best of Pinter. Helen Kay as Ned's wife, Joy, suffers the opposite problem: with the most underwritten of the three characters, she too often resorts to exasperated, vampish boredom, which is difficult to put across without the undertow of playfulness or real sexual need.

Stephen Billington, like the other two, is a strong performer but occasionally here a little too coarse for the delicacy required by the play. After a great first scene, he frustratingly remains something of a cipher, seeming to be a different person altogether when addressing the audience (the only character in this privileged position) as opposed to when he is engaged in the onstage action.

The Katie Posner-directed play is a good choice for the season, adding depth to the range on offer at the Theatre Royal and providing an opportunity for the actors to stretch their talents in a different space and a very different style of production. Perhaps the direction is simply a little too straightforward, or the lighting and design not quite adventurous enough - the lighting, in particular seems somewhat flat and bright, where a more stylised approach may have emphasised the darkness of the play. Or perhaps it is just that the text itself does not quite manage to say anything utterly new about suburban despair and the difficulties faced when your hair thins, your gut expands and your marriage palls. Despite rave reviews for its première, the text in this incarnation leaves the impression that its subject matter has been dealt with already, with Ayckbourn's take more acerbic, Bryony Lavery's more lyrical, and Pinter's - the master's - more brutally, sexily powerful.

Reviewer: Mark Smith