Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 9 October 2015

Eventide

Arcola Theatre ⋄ 25th September - 17th October 2015

The dying spirit of a rural nation.

Tim Bano

Even from the bars of guitar music that play in the darkness just before the play’s opening lines, there is a gentleness, a reassurance, a familiarity to Barney Norris’s play. We’re in a pub garden. A landlord, John, tells a bawdy joke; a young guy, Mark, has a drink before starting his construction shift; the kindly church organist, Liz, sticks with just lemonade.

The play spans two evenings, nine months apart, as the three characters undergo events that – in the grand scheme of things – are insignificant: a funeral, a wedding, an old job and a new one. But for these individuals, the events are seismic.

Eventide brings to life the everyday people who tend to slip through the cracks. They’re the Eleanor Rigbys and Invisible Men of the world, but with no hint of pity or condescension. There is a profound respect for the ordinary in the play. The magnitude of an event doesn’t matter; what matters is that it’s happening to you and that makes it the most important thing in the world. Norris has a way with distinct and detailed characters. Small actions define them: John the landlord buys Liz and Mark a drink, despite the financial difficulties the pub is going through.

James Perkins’s design, the uniformity of a beer garden, contains a loving attention to detail. It resurrects family holidays in country villages or work-free summer evenings. It starts when you try to configure yourself around a too-small picnic bench. Then trying to put the Fosters umbrella up or trying to take the Fosters umbrella down. And stubbing cigarettes out in a plastic, ash-smeared ashtray. Balancing pint glasses on the warped wooden surface of the bench. Staying outside even when the darkness is as pitch and the night is bitter and cold.

The design suggests as much as it displays: although we’re only in the smoking area, there’s the promise of the trudge back indoors to get another round of drinks, hit by the warm wall of sweat and stale beer that is indelibly ingrained into the seams and fabrics of the place. A persistent, muffled chatter can be heard offstage somewhere.

Norris summons something that once seemed permanent, and is now fading. It’s the dying spirit of a rural nation. It’s a folk play, and folk at its truest: stories and jokes told in a pub over a drink.

What Norris accesses is not the narrative of British history in the sense of events and battles, but something less tangible and less precise: that religion used to rule the country, whether arch-Anglicanism with its ‘here endeth the lesson’s and its ‘more tea Vicar’s, or messy Catholicism with its something-for-everyone and everyone-for-something ways. GK Chesterton once explained how he knew the Catholic Church was for him: whenever he went to non-Catholic churches and left his umbrella in the stand at the back, it would be there waiting after Mass. Whenever he went to a Catholic church, someone would steal it.

It’s hard to begrudge the romance of a Christian upbringing – excepting, for the moment, Old Testament severity and ingrained, institutional bigotry. Ceremony and music infuse every aspect of life, and they exist as part of being in a community. They become innate. And when you grow up, and if you lose the faith, then they just become nostalgia. Something to reminisce about. Maybe pop into a Church if it’s pretty and you’re nearby. Maybe indulge your parents and tag along to mass at Christmas. But it all takes on a different meaning. That thorough knowledge of every hymn and response and action is no longer worship or praise. It’s a means of social connection with other erstwhile initiates.

Liz, Mark and John may not actually believe in a Christian deity, but the orthodoxy doesn’t matter as society takes a post-Christian turn. It’s the orthopraxy. Funerals still happen in churches, weddings still happen in churches, community still happens in churches. And, to quote R Kelly, after the show it’s the after party, usually in the pub. Faith is private – no one cares what you actually believe – but worship in the sense of doings and sayings becomes the public face of religion.

Eventide is a hymn, an elegy, but it isn’t entirely mournful. The play’s wist for a golden age doesn’t come with a condemnation of the way things are now. Rather, it’s about the inevitability of change in any community, and the way we can choose to accept those changes. It’s the minor fall that comes just before the major lift.

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Tim Bano

Tim is a freelance arts writer and theatre critic. He writes regularly for Time Out, The Stage and other publications. He is co-creator of Pursued By A Bear, Exeunt Magazine's theatre podcast.

Eventide Show Info


Produced by Up in Arms

Directed by Alice Hamilton

Written by Barney Norris

Cast includes Hasan Dixon, James Doherty, Ellie Piercy

Link http://www.arcolatheatre.com/

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