Review of Song From Far Away at HOME, Manchester.
Willem, a financial trader in New York, has his working day interrupted by a voicemail. It’s his mother, telling him that his brother Pauli had died.
After complaining that the news has come at “a very inconvenient time”, he packs his bags, boards a flight, and returns to his family’s home in Amsterdam.
Song From Far Away is a monologue, in the form of seven letters. One a day, written by Willem to his dead brother, chronicling his return to the Netherlands for Pauli’s funeral.
As Willem, Will Young is on stage for the show’s full 80 minutes. It’s a brave choice of role. Not the most sympathetic of characters, at times Willem comes across as stone cold.
On arriving in Amsterdam, he is in no rush to see his parents. Instead, Willem checks into a hotel, and has a one-night stand with a man he meets in a bar.
Young deftly conveys Willem’s self-importance and accompanying disdain for those he encounters. Often, he will tilt his nose and chin upwards as if in search of a more rarefied atmosphere. His hands move expressively, as if he always expects an audience when speaking.
Confidently carrying the narrative, Young pushes the play forward with the power of his performance.
There’s an underlying sense of discontent to Willem, a weary ennui. He becomes uncharacteristically cheerful at the thought that his plane might crash and be consumed by flames. Contemplating the injustices and social inequalities of his home city, he gets suddenly agitated at the system that confers such privilege on people like him.
His greatest anger though is reserved for Pauli, whose death has dragged him reluctantly back to somewhere he doesn’t want to be.
Song From Far Away can be viewed simply as a study of grief, but it’s more than that. Willem’s feelings around his brother’s death play out against the background of fractured family relationships.
For such a compact play, Simon Stephens’ writing is surprisingly searching – weaving in thoughts on the dehumanising nature of the modern world, the insularity conferred by wealth, and the loneliness of the rootless.
Ingrid Hu’s set with its tasteful yet bland furniture and floor to ceiling views, offers comfortable anonymity, the sort of plush soulless space that might be anywhere – hotel room, airport lounge, apartment.
Beyond the vast windows, there’s sometimes only a dark emptiness pressing in. Yet, the world outside Willem’s cossetted existence can be capable of beguiling beauty – a sudden snowstorm, or a night sky filled with firework smoke.
Dry ice will often linger across the set and Jane Lalljee’s lighting adds a haunting quality to it, giving it a clearly defined presence, like ink slowly dispersing in water.
Something about a tune playing in a bar catches Willem’s heart “in its hand”, and the song’s melody lodges itself within his memory, staying with him throughout his stay.
While Mark Eitzel’s specially written composition gradually filters into the play, the production includes additional music by Paul Schofield which creates a musical undercurrent to Young’s spoken words at key moments. It’s an approach that works well, subtly enhancing the impact of what is being said.
Overall, there’s a satisfyingly cinematic quality to the production, but occasionally things can get over-egged. An indulgent echo added to Young’s voice for emphasis – or some unnecessary (and distracting) business with the curtains in the background while, front of stage, Young sings hypnotically in hushed honeyed tones.
Willem’s departure from Amsterdam brings no neat conclusion. Has he been changed by his brother’s death, or that siren-like song? The unexpected connection with his young niece, crushing encounter with an ex-lover, and bruisingly honest exchange with his sister have all been documented – but their impacts remain ambiguous.
Director Kirk Jameson’s finely-tuned Song From Far Away wraps itself elegantly around its star’s thoughtful performance – and Young, as Willem, is just the right side of charming, gracefully connecting with his audience while retaining a cool distance.
Performance seen on 25 February 2023.
Song From Far Away runs at HOME from 22 February to 11 March 2023.
Prices – tickets from £10 to £32.
Images by Chris Payne