Parlour Song – May 2009


By Jez Butterworth

Directed by Ian Rickson

Venue: Alemida Theatre

Date: Saturday 9th May 2009

This was a perplexing piece; very well written language-wise, with three very good performances and a fascinating set, but I’m still not sure what it was about. Mind you, when a playwright gets away with describing cunnilingus as a good ice-breaker, the afternoon’s got to be enjoyable.

The set was basic black, with two quarter revolves facing the back to start. The sides of these sections formed a screen, and at the start this had a misty picture of a forest of tree trunks projected onto it, a bit like a Chekov setting. Lines from the play were also projected at the start of each scene, like titles, and there were other images to add to the atmosphere. The two quarter sets held a sitting room on the left and a dining room and bedroom on the right, although at the end, all the missing items appeared on the left side (couldn’t see the stuffed badger, though). Some scenes were played in front of the screen, and on one occasion the two bits of screen came forward to create a V shape, similar to the position the revolves took when they swung round. There were conifers in a hedge to each side of the stage, and what with the lighting effects and projected images, the whole production had a dreamlike, surreal quality.

The play is set during a long hot summer, with Ned (Toby Jones) blowing things up all over the country (he’s a demolition expert) and Joy (Amanda Drew) his wife ‘disappearing’ various objects from the house while seducing Dale (Andrew Lincoln) their neighbour and Ned’s close friend, this despite the fact that Dale is also married with kids. It becomes (fairly) clear that Joy is planning to run away from Ned, and  preferably with Dale, but he bottles it (this is when he finally thinks to mention the two kids who are so important to him!) and she ends up staying with Ned. Finally, the rain comes, and I’m left wondering, was that a one-off and all down to the heat, or is there more to the story? I misunderstood that Ned killing his wife was part of his dream, so I was a bit confused when she reappeared, especially as the body double they’d got for Amanda Drew fooled me completely. I mean, I know she’s a good actress, but two places at once? (It’s been a long week.)

The early scenes in particular were excellent. Dale did a lot of talking to the audience, then we’d get a little scene, and so on, and the dialogue and characterisation were spot on. There was a lot of humour too, with different parts of the audience reacting more strongly to certain lines – the people along our row really enjoyed the line about Kosovans – but it didn’t feel divisive in this performance. I loved the exchange about Falkirk, where Ned’s sure he hasn’t shown Dale his video of that demolition job, and Dale has to describe the whole thing in detail before Ned remembers.

The workout scenes were also good. Initially, Ned asks Dale to help him get a bit fitter, and so Dale takes him through an exercise session, during which Ned is telling this long-winded story about how he came to buy his new bride a heavy soapstone bird bath from his share of the fifty pounds he’d found blowing along the street. The story gets in the way of the exercising, and the ultimate point is that that morning, the bird bath had disappeared. Not something Ned could have misplaced, or misremembered. The story itself is quite good fun, but the humour of this bit is mainly in the way the lads work out, with Ned almost rupturing himself with the first exercise, and Dale looking like a complete poseur.

The second session is similar, in that the comedy is all physical. This time, it’s just Ned exercising in his own sitting room using weights, and then working up to the bar bell which is just a bit too heavy for him. His little jogs and puffing out his breath were good fun, and then when he did get the bar up over his head he couldn’t control it properly, so when Dale arrived he had to topple over towards the sofa to get out of the awkward position he’d got himself into. Great fun. There was also the look that Joy gives him over dinner where we can clearly see that she’s not enjoying their relationship at all, and the bit in the bedroom, when Ned is listening to a tape that Dale’s lent him about satisfying a woman sexually, was just hilarious. That’s when we get to hear about the ice-breaking effects of cunnilingus, and get to enjoy Ned practising his tongue wiggles.

There were a lot of scenes and I found I wasn’t fully engaged all the time, but overall the performances kept it going and made it worthwhile.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

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