The Sea

Edward Bond
Court Theatre Training Company
Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton
(2011)

The Sea, Courtyard Theatre

Edward Bond’s 1973 play The Sea is not an easy piece. In an interview with Michael Billington at the time of the 2008 revival at the Haymarket, he described it as “a comedy that argues it is possible to change the world”. Set in an East Anglian coastal town, it combines elements of farce, tragedy and melodrama, as though Peter Grimes and Albert Herring have been combined; a real challenge, especially for a company that lacks experience.

Doug Rollins’s production opens effectively with lightning flashing, the roar of a stormy sea and the confusion of lantern-bearing figures calling out in the dark. A body washes up against a jetty and is carried out again. Are these men trying to save survivors or are they ensuring no one from this wreck survives? One can’t be sure. It is a scene of mystery and high drama and a very theatrical beginning.

When the lights come up a beach hut, beyond the jetty is opened up to become the draper’s shop of Mr Hatch where imperious Mrs Rafi is choosing fabric and we are into a sort of social satire. It could have been already set, unnoticed in the darkness, but the hiatus of the slow transition may be deliberate to separates the worlds of gritty life and artificial social posturing.

We now discover that one of the community’s favourite sons is believed drowned, his body not yet been recovered. He was about to be married to childhood friend Rose. His friend Willy Carson was with him when their boat overturned but he managed to get ashore.

With Mrs Rafi carrying on like an understudy for Lady Bracknell and a paranoid Mr Hatch believing he has to fight off an alien invasion, it is difficult to make these characters believable unless the actors believe in them themselves, and that seems to be a problem with this production: they are playing eccentrics, not being them. The townsfolk’s varied accents did not help establish a location, though some, like Welsh Myfanwy, were clearly incomers, and while actors had clearly thought about how to say the lines, too often there was no sense that they had actually thought them.

While Hatch goes mad, Mrs Rafi pursues her amateur theatricals, significantly rehearsing a play about Orpheus and Eurydice—did it really have Cerberus, the dog who guards the entrance to the Underworld, swimming in the River Styx? A different kind of craziness! It is probably intended to be hilarious, but here scores neither as a good laugh nor as a satirical study of class behaviour, though there is the potential for both.

Some things go decidedly better in the second half. Emilia Petryszyn is a touchingly believable Rose, the bereaved fiancée, and though a farcical cliff top committal of the drowned man’s ashes lacks real hilarity, Tamsyn Kelly handles Mrs Rafi’s description of her own situation with real feeling. A forceful woman, as she describes herself, trapped in this maritime backwater, performing the character people expect. “If they turn you into an eccentric it’s a form of flattery” she declares, but “I am tired of being a sideshow in their little world.” Here Kelly gets it right, but it does not inform the artificiality of her earlier performance of the character.

Does Bond’s play really suggest that it is possible to change the world? Rose and Eddy Cottridge’s Willy do have to change their own lives when they pack their bags and leave this close community but, as philosophising beachcomber Evens suggests in his image of social evolution, “the rat will turn into the rat catcher”. Michael Ossitt, in this outsider role, does make the ideas his own in a leisured performance that is helped by his proximity to the audience—most scenes are on the platform stage, separated by the length of the long jetty and it may be that distancing that this cast must learn to bridge if they are going to make this the comedy that Bond says he has written. It is a challenge which some much more experienced than them have failed.

“The Sea” runs at the Courtyard Theatre until 11th December 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton