HALFWAY through Eventide, two of the characters, sitting in the smoking area behind a village pub, sing the hymn “Dear Lord and Father of mankind”. The silence that follows — reflective and melancholy, but rather beautiful — sums up the mood of this wistful sigh of a play.
Barney Norris specialises in evocative writing about loss. In his previous, highly acclaimed, play Visitors, he tenderly presented a marriage under the strain of a memory drifting away. This time it is rural communities that come under his gaze, and he writes with an autumnal sadness. Somehow, his writing is even more poignant because of the extremely funny lines he has put in the mouths of likeable, but lonely, people.
The three memorably drawn characters are all dealing with things they need to leave behind. John (James Doherty) is the landlord of the pub, but it’s his last day because he has been forced to sell out to a chain — the subtle changes to James Perkins’s set as the pub smartens up but loses its character are another of the production’s understated pleasures.
Liz (Ellie Piercy) is a music teacher driving so far to find a church congregation large enough to need an organist that the fee doesn’t cover the petrol. And young Mark (Hasan Dixon) is trying to be aspirational, but grief over the death of a friend makes it difficult for him to look forward to anything more fulfilling than dull jobs that only just pay the rent.
All three performances, under Alice Hamilton’s compassionate direction, are nuanced and completely believable. It’s a play driven more by character than by plot. We watch the three over the course of a year, and the small happenings that shape their lives make us ache not just for them, but for a countryside that is changing irrevocably.
Even Liz, who can summon up more swear words than most church organists, is recognisable. She is from a generation for whom the culture that has been shaped over the centuries by the presence of a church in every village is more important than the faith it proclaims: “You don’t have to believe in God to be an Anglican. That’s the whole point. The right to have an equivocal relationship with everything — that’s the point.”
The theatre company Up In Arms is from the south-west of England, and has refreshed metropolitan theatre audiences used to frenzied, urban dramas by bringing them the quiet and painful humanity of rural lives. This play is another unsentimental delight. Eventide is something that each of us will face. The play is a yearning reminder that, when other helpers fail and comforts flee, I am going to need someone who will abide with me.
Eventide continues at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, London E8, until 17 October. Phone 020 7503 1646. It then tours to the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (22-24 October); The North Wall, Oxford (28-31 October); Salisbury Playhouse (3-7 November); and the Bristol Tobacco Factory (10-14 November). Full details of venues and box offices can be found at upinarms.org.uk.