The latest in the season from the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company is a version of Edward Bond's play, The Sea, written in 1973. Billed as a comedy, it is certainly very funny in places, but it nevertheless contains a substantial element of tragedy with a hefty dose of philosophy to polish things off. Now I'm not really certain that I know exactly what this play is about in terms of the themes and hidden depths it explores. But I'm sure that most people will find something to take away with them: like some great lines or the memory of some exceptional performances, in particular from Eileen Atkins as the authoritative Mrs Rafie and David Haig as an insane draper, Hatch.
Set in a village dominated (or even, possibly, ruled) by the sea, the play begins with a storm in which a young man, Colin, drowns even though there is help nearby in the form of the local draper who is paid by the village to keep watch for such life-threatening events. With tempestuous noise, it's a little hard to know exactly what's going on as the storm rages and a body floats out to sea. Hatch the draper seems to be railing against someone or something, but it's hard to be sure exactly what. Things become clearer as the action moves to the draper's shop, and we hear from the owner that aliens are trying to take over the brains of the local population. This takes us very much by surprise. It's seems difficult to accept this kind of idea from characters dressed in Edwardian costumes, though I can't readily explain exactly why. However, it certainly adds to the interest of the play, and draws one in to the plot.
The story is not just about the threat from extra-terrestrials. It's also about the conflict between the inhabitants of the village. Mrs Rafi is an elderly, well-to-do type who seems to delight in ordering merchandise from Mr Hatch the draper and then refusing to take it when her order arrives. Her fickle superiority is thus driving Hatch towards bankruptcy, and so it's no wonder that, when Mrs Rafi tells the draper to send back an enormous quantity of velvet she's ordered for some curtains, the draper snaps and loses all control of his mental faculties.
Intermingled with the storyline of the draper's madness, the community wait for Colin's body to be washed ashore and for the impending inquest and funeral.
David Haig certainly expends considerable energy once his character starts to lose his sanity. During a frantic scene where he cuts up 2 huge rolls of cloth, Haig sweats rather profusely in what is a hugely demanding scene to play, but which is also highly amusing. And there's never any question that we're not totally convinced as to what is happening to him. Eileen Atkins on the other hand, has an easier time of things because hers is a rather more sedate role. Nevertheless, Dame Eileen produces a kind of masterclass in acting complete with withering looks and the overall air of middle-class pomposity.
The remainder of the company aren't overawed by their two leading actors being in top form. Indeed, it is more apt to say that they rise to the occasion, driving themselves on to first rate performances. It's a splendid, almost faultless ensemble, but Marcia Warren as companion, Mrs Tilehouse, deserves particular note for her hymn-singing, as does Mariah Gale who shed very movingly shed tears as Colin's grieving girlfriend.
Paul Brown's design is carefully thought-out and highly appropriate. His (sliding) beach, for example, isn't the type we'd go sunning ourselves on while on holiday. No, it's a severe and cold location with slabs of hard rock under foot. It doubles neatly as the cliffs where the community decide to scatter the ashes of the drowned Colin, though it did leave me wondering how someone might have trucked a piano up there.
The storm sequence at the start of the show was impressively and dramatically staged with neat projections, even though the usual conflict between the requirement for realism and audibility slightly made it difficult to follow what was being said. That didn't matter, though, because everything becomes much clearer later on, and the need for realism in this case, outweighed the need for absolute clarity.
All-in-all, director Jonathan Kent and the Haymarket Company have done a sterling job with an interesting and surprising piece.
What the popular press had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Splendid production...expertly acted production."NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "A comic and poignant attraction." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "This is acting of the highest order in a play that, deriving from the Royal Court in 1973, struggles to achieve the global significance to which it aspires." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "I can see that The Sea is something special...I certainly don't want to encourage an Edward Bond revival, but this classic piece of English eccentricity is worth the detour." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "In themselves the [Actor's performances] make one of Bond’s odder plays worth its somewhat surprising place in Kent’s West End season."
Production photos by Sasha Gusov