by Barney Norris
"It's like everyone's trying to keep a secret. Trouble is the secret's out."
Barney Norris's secretive lyrical three-hander, directed by Alice Hamilton at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, covers a year bookended by a funeral and a marriage, revolving around a Hampshire village pub.
Enter John the heavy-drinking freeholder pub landlord (an ebullient James Doherty) into the pub garden on his last day before selling up to a chain.
The time of a village centred on the local Downton-Abbey big house, the Anglican church and local pub is now long past, although, we learn by the play's end, charity at the point of delivery appears to have made a comeback.
Eventide means end of the day, but is also name of the tune and mentioned in the lyrics of hymn "Abide With Me".
Delightfully, at least one more senior member of the audience sang along when it came up, testifying to the abiding influence of church services or, just as, if not more, likely, school assemblies. The origin of the play's title appears to be one of the secrets of the play, part of a web of somewhat cryptic allusions.
Yet Norris seemed to TLT to have caught the zeitgeist on the day employees at the Bank of England issued warnings full of foreboding about buy-to-let for a different kind of landlord.
Forced to liquidate to pay an ex-wife her half share of the assets, presumably after tax, as the couple's tax bill is also involved (we never see or hear of the accountant or bookkeeper who allowed this to happen!), Bible-quoting publican John entertains two final-day customers.
Local lad Mark (Hasan Dixon) can hardly afford to pay the rent to live in his own village. He takes jobs where he can including, while mourning the death of his best friend, one to patch up the village war memorial with which her car collided. While Liz (an excellent Ellie Piercy) drives a couple of hours a day to play the ramshackle church organ, taking a loss on her expenses.
Lucky mine host of this blog had a copy of the script/programme for this review. For TLT mistakenly thought she heard "always civil service when you come to The White Horse" as a clever pun on the old role of pubs in civil and criminal law, as even the Inns of Court and Inns of Chancery were part of a network of taverns where business was conducted and not part of (landlord) universities.
In fact, the line was "always silver [my italics] service at the White Horse". Oh, the perils of doing reviews :o ;)!!!
Yet set against a simple, but evocative of centuries of pub life, set design by James Perkins, the playwright does investigate, dramatically, pub and English history in other ways.
The framework of monologues linked by sequences with two or three of the characters, is more apparent in the somewhat self-consciously symbolic and poetic first half. Here ideas and arguments, although insightful, sometimes feel schematic and take over from characterisation, despite sterling work by the actors.
And maybe some of the over-explanatory nooks and crannies over all the script could have been directed and played with a sharper, self-knowing irony rather than at face value. However, once the foundations have been laid, the play comes more into its own as it moves into the second act.
A year later, Mark, suited and booted, is an employee assistant manager of the pub, part of a chain, with a staff drawn from around the globe, preparing for his wedding.
Liz is ready to play her last organist gig as Mark takes his bride up the aisle.
John, previously sent off after describing the tribute to him from a communally-minded now deceased village elder, unexpectedly arrives and the threads of the play are drawn together.
This bookish, thought-provoking and sometimes charmingly mysterious piece has a definite appeal with a tour lined up after its Arcola run. Another amber/green light.