Fortnight Theatre’s latest production, Parlour Song by Jez Butterworth, was an uneven experience. The play itself is thoroughly engaging, yet certain directorial and acting choices hindered the audience’s ability to become fully immersed in the piece.
Some of director Max Lindon’s choices were undoubtedly impressive. His use of the space worked very well for the most part with the variety of locations used around the stage creating an interesting and varied tableaux that allowed the audience’s attention to be maintained throughout. The only time this faltered was when scenes were set outside of the house, as the lights on the sofa and bed were still on, which made things slightly confusing. Additionally, the various moments of physical acting were superb – the emotion conveyed through just chewing a meal was incredible. Other decisions, however, came across as distinctly odd. The fact that music played only whilst the house lights were up – and at an irritatingly loud volume – did not add to the experience but rather confused it. If music is going to be used, then it should be in aid of creating an immersive atmosphere; perhaps continuing or crescendoing it as the house lights were going down would have helped this. Frankly though, it felt unnecessary and vaguely irritating, particularly due to the unbalanced EQ of the speakers. Another poor decision was the fact that large parts of the show were performed in darkness, with the actors purposefully walking out of the stage lights. This was particularly frustrating when Dale (Alex Marshall) was walking down to the front of the stage, as it shattered the illusion and ruined the immersion of the audience. It’s very distracting when there is only one performer on stage but instead of having the spotlight on them, it is a few steps to their left.
Real credit, though, has to be given to the cast. Claire Forster (Joy) was understated and intensely intriguing – the flat delivery of her lines was entrancing and truly brought a malicious edge to the character. Marshall was similarly engaging throughout; his monologues were the highlight of the show for me. It takes incredible ability to keep the audience entertained through long speeches and Marshall did so with ease. Furthermore, his delivery and comic timing were spot on, and he really added humour to what would otherwise have been a quite dark show. Wilf Wort’s performance as Ned was also spectacularly good. There was never a moment on stage where he wasn’t fully committed to his character and the way he handled Ned’s various breakdowns kept the audience gripped.
Despite this, a few key issues did let the actors down. The most evident problem with the acting was the wild variation there seemed to be in the ages of the characters. The dialogue suggested that they were all likely in their thirties or forties since the characters had been married for over a decade. Yet Forster and Marshall both seemed to be in their early twenties, whilst Wort seemed more like he was in his fifties or sixties in the first act before settling on a more realistic version of middle-aged in the second. Another odd choice was to have both Joy and Dale speak with strong Essex accents and while Ned spoke with a distinctly Northern one, with only a faint Essex twang at times. Having actors keep their own accents when performing in English plays usually works quite well, and so it was quintessentially jarring when very well-known places in Essex were referenced and yet only two of the characters had the correct accent. Wort’s gruffer tones and his use of the lower vocal register rather than the higher pitch of an Essex accent perhaps also contributed towards the fact he seemed so much older than the other characters. Furthermore, whilst Forster’s understated delivery worked for the most part, there were a few instances when an emotional climax in her delivery seemed necessary and when this did not occur, the scenes fell slightly flat.
Overall, Parlour Song is a tough piece of theatre to tackle and Fortnight Theatre should be commended for attempting it in only two weeks. With a few adjustments, this could be a really excellent show, but even without any changes I would recommend catching its final night. For all its faults, the team did a great job on this comedy and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an evening.