Jez Butterworth has had at least three critically lauded plays during his writing career (Mojo, Jerusalem, The Ferryman) which also proved hits with the theatre going public. Alongside these sit a few others which received rather more mixed reviews and receptions (The Winterling, The Night Heron). And then there’s Parlour Song which garnered positive notices but didn’t quite take off in the same way as the big three. Premiered at the Almeida in 2009, it is now available on a couple of digital theatre platforms and proves to be a fascinating glimpse into the middle years work of this respected writer heavily influenced by Pinter but definitely still carving out his own niche in dramatic composition.
Parlour Song is a three hander concerning the lives of two couples – although one of them is never seen – who live next door to each other on a suburban housing estate on the edges of the London sprawl. The houses are identical mirror images of each other – indeed all the houses there are of a kind – but behind their closed doors lies a whole world of troubled souls. Our narrator is jack-the-lad Dale who owns his own car washing business employing thirty people – he hates it. By contrast neighbour Ned can’t seem to get enough of his demolition business; the play starts with him enthusiastically showing Dale video footage of one of the jobs he has carried out and it is soon evident that this isn’t the first time this has happened. And then there’s Joy, Ned’s wife, who couldn’t be more inappropriately named; confined to being a housewife she lacks fulfilment and soon falls into a relationship with her neighbour. From what we see of it, it’s a strange affair apparently mostly consisting of playing a sexy form of Scrabble. Nobody really seems to find the arrangement satisfactory – life goes unrelentingly forward.
I realise I’m making this all sound rather doom laden when it’s actually very funny for most of the time as Butterworth exposes the underbelly of the suburban lifestyle in a manner reminiscent of the work of Alan Ayckbourn. There’s an hilarious scene early on when Ned serves up a chicken dinner for Joy. On the page the dialogue would seem totally banal but in the playing of Toby Jones and Amanda Drew the words resonate with unarticulated subtext in best Pinter fashion. Similarly, when Joy tries to persuade Andrew Lincoln’s Dale to fetch her a lemon so she can have a gin and tonic, she is clearly talking about so much more than a piece of yellow citrus fruit. Aspects of both Pinter’s Old Times and The Homecoming loom large.
As Nicholas Hytner is to Alan Bennett, so Ian Rickson is to Butterworth having directed the premieres of the majority of his work; here he captures not only the humour but also the underlying tragedy of the trio’s existence. The acting from Jones, Lincoln and Drew is pretty much faultless in a series of duologues with a shifting dynamic. The dialogue is precisely calibrated and so is the delivery. In two largely silent scenes Jones draws waves of laughter and huge applause as he wrestles with, in one, weightlifting equipment and, in another, an “improve your sexual technique” podcast which he pretends to Joy is the music of Eric Clapton. However, some aspects of the play are bemusing, especially the last quarter of an hour so which, frankly, left me baffled. Then there’s the mystery of a play title which doesn’t seem to refer to anything within it. There’s also the running thread of things which keep going missing from Ned and Joy’s garden despite increased security measures; there is no resolution to this. Are we supposed to suspect Joy of some form of gaslighting? Is Ned, who has bad dreams and sleepwalks, doing it himself consciously or subconsciously? Is Dale a bit light fingered? And what of the mysterious Linda?
Ultimately, I decided not to worry too much about the plot but to instead revel in the glories of the dialogue and the consummate acting on display. While maybe not reaching the heights of some of Butterworth’s other work, Parlour Song is certainly worth your time and attention … unless you’d rather be landing a tile on a triple word score.
Parlour Song is available from the Digital Theatre platform – click here – and the Broadway HD platform – click here
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