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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Parlour Song
Almeida Theatre       Spring 2009

Jez Butterworth's black comedy uses a failing marriage as the vehicle for exploring the broader malaises of modern suburban life.

That's not a particularly original subject, and Butterworth muddies the waters a bit with a lot of stray symbolism. But there's also a lot of comic invention in the writing and production, and if you don't think too hard about what it all means, you can have a lot of fun along the way.

A sad little man works hard to rekindle the connection with his wife of a dozen years, who is beginning to drift away, enlisting the advice and help of his neighbour, who also serves as narrator.

But it doesn't surprise us too much (and so I'm not giving much away) to discover that neighbour and wife are also friendly.

The general sense that all is not peaceful and happy in suburbia, that the relatively new identakit homes are developing cracks in the walls, that the forest that used to be there is just waiting to reclaim the land, and that everybody harbours some secret unhappiness or fear - as I said, this isn't particularly new, and Butterworth doesn't have much that's new to say about it.

But when his verbal and stylistic inventiveness doesn't get in his own way, he says it very entertainingly.

He has a marvellous ear for the inanities of small talk, particularly between the two men, capturing the way clichés, meaningless jargon and even TV catchphrases find their way into ordinary conversations, displacing and sometimes actually aiding original thought.

The poor husband decides to get in better physical shape to make himself more attractive to his wife, and actor Toby Jones and director Ian Rickson have a lot of fun with scenes of exercising himself into exhaustion, as comically as they exploit a scene of the guy listening to a sexual techniques CD.

On a more quietly comic note, the man tries to recapture the romance of his honeymoon days with a story that goes way over the head - or heart - of the neighbour played by Andrew Lincoln as amiable but blokeishly thick.

And some of Butterworth's metaphors and symbols do resonate. One man is in the demolition business, knocking things down when they've outlived their usefulness, while the other runs car washes, keeping old things looking good, at least on the outside.

Somebody seems to be systematically stealing trivial things - a birdbath, a stamp collection - from the husband, in what is clearly a metaphor of his emotional losses while also the occasion of some good laughs.

But elsewhere the symbols multiply and don't clearly add to the play's meanings. There's something about rain, and something about nightmares, and something about lemons and forests and shopping centres – all fraught with meaning, but little hint as to what the meaning is.

That sense of hidden levels is reflected in the dialogue and acting as well, which frequently takes on the Pinteresque tone of really being about something darker than the surface words suggest.

I am convinced that director Rickson told Amanda Drew to play the wife as if she were Vivien Merchant in The Homecoming, charging every single line with sexual menace, and there is a sequence about a cut finger that is a direct homage to the water glass scene in The Homecoming.

If it were flawless, Parlour Song could have been a work of major stature. But, stray metaphors and unresolved plot strands aside, the play does convey, in broad terms, the sense of hidden everyday unhappiness that it wants to, and it does so while frequently making you laugh out loud.

It would be churlish to ask for more.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Parlour Song - Almeida Theatre 2009
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