Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Sea

Edward Bond
Theatre Royal Haymarket
(2008)

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The career of Edward Bond has been remarkable, generally for the wrong reasons. In 1965 when Saved open at the Royal Court, he was arguably the most famous (or infamous) playwright in the country. Those involved in staging the play were prosecuted because of the legendary scene in which a gang of youths stoned a baby to death, prefiguring actions that happen rather too often on the streets of Britain today.

Forty plus years on, he is completely unknown in his own country, though his plays premiere and are regularly performed on the continent. It is therefore a very brave decision by Jonathan Kent to have selected him as part of the opening season of the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company.

The first production by this company, The Country Wife rather misfired and therefore the need for The Sea to prove popular with both critics and audiences is all the greater.

It was interesting to view it at a Saturday matinee in the company of a large contingent of the blue rinse brigade. An unseen playwright with a reputation for writing shocking plays is not the standard fare of those who would normally prefer light comedy or a traditional, well-made play.

In fact, this 35-year-old play is as close to comedy as Bond is ever likely to get and certainly in the period up to the interval, gets a lots of laughs. It becomes more metaphysical in the second hour, which may well baffle even savvy London audiences but gives the drama greater depth and meaning.

The design team of Paul Brown, Sven Ortel on projections and Paul Groothuis - sound get the play started with incredible dramatic effect, as the wild sea claims a young victim, Colin despite the efforts of the friend with whom he shares a boat and the coastguard to save him. After this excitement, the ensuing scenes appear to promise calmness but in fact, this is misleading.

Jonathan Kent's production features outstanding performances from a pair of actors playing contrasting roles. David Haig portrays an unctuous draper, Hatch, who seems to be a major player in the Edwardian, east coast community to which he belongs.

He faces two insuperable obstacles in life. The first is the commencement of a descent into insanity but the second is equally challenging, the local chatelaine, Mrs Rafi.

Eileen Atkins plays her as a Wildean heroine, supercilious to a fault and bullying everybody within reach, including Hatch and also Marcia Warren's Miss Tilehouse, her rather dim but devoted, if mildly malicious, companion.

The early scenes take place in the draper's shop where he despairs at his inability to sell anything to the picky Mrs Rafi, out on the lonely rocks overlooking the sea and in her comfortable drawing room. The design is clever, enabling swift interchanges between convincing sets.

What might have been a conventional historical drama with a little social comedy, investigating the loss of a much loved son of a small town, takes on darker and more comic tones when Hatch finally gets together with his cronies, led by Russell Tovey's willing if hardly bright Hollacut.

The Sea suddenly enters the realms of absurdist madness, when Hatch announces that the town has been invaded by aliens from outer space. Life can never be the same again for anybody on or off stage.

The madness that has besieged the draper is not too far from claiming his willing associates but also others in a town where hysteria becomes de rigueur. In a rather sardonic commentary on British conformity, Bond follows the logic through, to the stage where the only sane and believable person is old Evans, a drunken tramp played by David Burke and living out on the rocks.

Towards the close, Eileen Atkins delivers a touching soliloquy on ageing and loneliness before the young couple that had been closest to Colin, his best friend Willy Carson (Harry Lloyd) and fiancée Rose Jones (Mariah Gale) make a final escape before one of theatre's most memorable last lines.

With its mixture of historical drama, quirky comedy and absurdism, The Sea can seem a bit like a hodgepodge of different influences. The Saturday afternoon audience probably enjoyed themselves although not always for the right reasons.

The chance to see David Haig in sparkling manic form and Eileen Atkins, arguably as good in a different style, will have pleased many and there were a good number of laughs, especially in the earlier stages.

One hopes that the new venture in the Haymarket is successful and therefore that this play can fill the large Theatre Royal for the next 2½ months, with, as a by-product, the resurrection of Edward Bond in his home country. Time will tell.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher