On the Shore of the Wide World

Simon Stephens
RNT Cottesloe
(2005)

The Holmes family seems genetically programmed for unhappiness. They have to put up with a lot of stresses but, through three generations, they have a real knack of looking on the dark side of any situation.

On the Shore of the Wide World is set in Stockport, a deprived Cheshire satellite of Manchester. They get their kicks from drink and fags but also dreams of love that are never pursued.

The play opens with the youngest generation filled with hope. 18 year old Alex (Thomas Morrison) has fallen in love with the impressive Carla Henry's pretty, plain-talking Sarah, much to the chagrin of his younger brother, the slightly odd but totally besotted Christopher.

The nervousness felt by this trio and of the boys' parents when they invite Sarah to stay over for the night is both realistic and palpable. In a way, the next generation up, Peter and Alice, are already living vicariously through the young couple, hoping that they will succeed where their elders have not.

The problems stem from sozzled Granddad, who in turn attributes them to his father. One of Simon Stephens' messages, imparted by the old man, is that in the same way that technology develops through the generations so does the quality of life.

David Hargreaves is strong in the part of the red-faced old man, who watches life repeating itself but learns nothing. The scene in which he finally snaps is especially hard for an audience to watch, let alone his younger grandson.

Despite a brief foray to London, Alex and Sarah are destined to live their lives in Stockport while, following a tragedy that the Theatre has requested be left out of reviews, everyone else struggles to find solace and redirect their lives.

Much of the play looks at a group of people who are fundamentally incapable of having the cathartic affairs that they so desperately seem to need, although opportunities come to almost all. The consequences are that despite temptation and provocation, they bottle up their unhappiness and never achieve release.

Similarly, in almost every discussion, however frank, something is held back and it is only in the final scene, that hope for any kind of a bearable future is established as the whole family begins to operate as a simple unit.

Simon Stephens has created a kitchen sink drama that shows normal life in a normal town. It makes pretty uncomfortable viewing and is a very long way from the Noel Coward or Hampstead trendy plays that a National Theatre might traditionally have been expected to deliver.

One of the delights of the evening is the staging in the round by director Sarah Frankcom. This is complemented by Liz Ascroft's magical set. The actors walk around a circular aerial view of an industrial town (Stockport?) while a beautiful astral hemisphere hangs over them, suggesting a wide perspective of this microcosmic representation of life on earth.

David Chadderton reviewed this production at its premiere at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

Reviewer: Philip Fisher