The mysterious past misdeed, whose nature is withheld until the play’s closing stages, is a staple of the nebulous sub-genre known as New Writing. Suitably enough, Fear of Music – by up-and-coming playwright Barney Norris – begins with a teasing flash-forward: Andy (Jack Finch), clearly agitated, rushes into his bedroom as sirens blare in the background. However, there is nothing cynical about Fear of Music; unlike much new writing, it does not reek with the fumes of the workshop. It is honest, understated and true.
Fear of Music returns to the Tristan Bates Theatre a year after it first run – and what a difference a year makes. The show comes replete with a new cast, a new title (it was previously called Missing) and, most significantly, a cash injection from Arts Council England. The new subsidy is evident as soon as one enters the theatre: the sparse set of last year has been replaced by an elaborate façade of wall-to-wall cassettes.
The play – the second by Out of Joint assistant and former AYT contributor Norris – is a two-hander examining the relationship between two brothers between 1988 and 1993. Luke (Hasan Dixon) and Andy live in dreary Andover. Their military father is dead and their mother’s mind is rapidly deteriorating. The bookish Luke is off to university; the rock-loving Andy, to Luke’s dismay, intends to join the army.
The dynamic between the two brothers is brilliantly portrayed. Whether it’s Andy teasing Luke about his girlfriend or Luke teasing Andy about his ideas for band names, Norris has a strong feel for the uniquely fraternal combination of affection, hostility and one-upmanship, and the performances do the writing justice. Fear of Music is also strong on the theme of memory: at several points, Luke, returning from university, gives tender soliloquies in which he dissects his experiences of Andy growing up. It is not surprising that Norris should excel in this area – memory was the guiding theme of his previous effort, At First Sight.
The feverish chronology of the play is also well handled. Our picture of the brothers’ relationship develops through non-linear snapshots; we jump from the late ’80s to the early ’90s and back, with blasts of The Stone Roses, R.E.M. and the like acting as a temporal anchor. The actors also help us along through economical devices – namely swapping beds and changing particular items of clothing – that create an effective visual code.
Being only the writer’s second play, there are some conspicuous, though forgivable, faults in the writing. The pacing is occasionally misjudged, particularly during the play’s final moments. The nature of Andy’s transgression is revealed at the very last moment, at which point the play abruptly ends; I could have done with some breathing space to digest this new information. What’s more, while the sense of period is well evoked, it’s less clear what it adds. The publicity draws parallels between Andy’s predicament and Thatcherism in a country that “doesn’t look after its own”, but the onstage dynamic is too intensely personal for the play to feel like a social document.
Nevertheless, Norris has succeeded in crafting an extraordinarily rich and humane portrayal of a relationship. Its virtue is in its simplicity: there is a refreshing unaffectedness about it. Only at one point – when Luke describes staring at fields “cleaved open like ham cut from bone” – does the play seem self-consciously literary.
Fear of Music is in large part a play about dreams and ambitions: both brothers dream of escaping; Andy dreams of rock stardom. With plays like these, Barney Norris can justifiably dream of future renown.
Fear of Music plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 2 March, after which it tours the country until March 27. For more information, see the website of Up in Arms theatre company