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On the Shore of the Wide World

Simon Stephens
Old Bomb Theatre Company
York Theatre Royal Studio
(2008)

Old Bomb Theatre Company are back at York Theatre Royal Studio with a production of On the Shore of the Wide World by Simon Stephens. Originally staged at The Royal Exchange Manchester before transferring to the National Theatre in 2005, this play explores the fragility of domestic relationships and the wider themes of loss, cowardice and love. Paul Osborne directs a lively and competent cast who capture the earthy tenderness of this Stockport based drama with a warm hearted ease.

The first half of the play concentrates on the world of the younger members of the Holmes family, brothers Alex (Luke James) and Christopher (Izaak Cainer). While Alex is experiencing the beginnings of his first intimate relationship with girlfriend Sarah (Amy Warnock), younger brother Christopher seems to be more interested in exploring the 'latent possibilities' of a disused rundown local hotel.

James gives a strong and well paced version of Alex, and Warnock balances Sarah's feistiness with a subtle vulnerability. The teenage lovers move from an endearing nervy innocence to a more mature and complex dynamic as the pair move away from Stockport and seek a new life in London. James and Warnock handle the couples' progression throughout the play well, and achieve a touching open honesty, despite the somewhat underwhelming and questionable portrayal of Alex's 'psycho-mate' Paul (Christopher Bell). The heart of the first half of the play lies in the character of Christopher, and Cainer celebrates this by bringing a delightful energised warmth to the stage which sets the tone for the piece.

The second half of the play deals with the two older generations of the Holmes family. Peter (Paul Stonehouse) and Alice Holmes (Beatrice Augusta) grapple with what's left of their marriage when both their boys are no longer with them, and they are faced with the consequence of their own failure to communicate and share their pain. Augusta struggles to maintain the grounded unpretentious side of Alice but finds her pace as the character demands a freer, less caged quality towards the end of the play. Stonehouse brings a steady excellence throughout and his thorough and meticulous performance leaves no emotional nuance unexplored.

Peter's parents, Charlie (Richard Easterbrook) and Ellen Holmes (Doreen Gurrey), are both suffering the effects of long term alcoholism as victim and enabler and Easterbrook brings exactly the right formula of horrifying gentleness to his role. His delivery honours the lines that hold the essence of the play: that if we can parent our children even only slightly better than we ourselves were parented, this has to count for something.

Osborne's direction uses a refreshingly simple and unfussy set, displaying the back wall of the theatre's brickwork and adorning the side walls in a glittering backdrop of stars, helping to locate the characters painful lives in a wider context. The pace of the production is somewhat let down by the tediousness of the set changes, and although mostly due to the restrictive functionality of the studio space, more could have been done to remedy this. On the whole the staging is precise and well balanced and all aspects of the narrative are tackled with sensitivity and conviction.

On the Shore of The Wide World asks big questions about marriage, parenthood and bravery, and throws light on aspects of family life that are less than noble, but the play remains, as does much of Stephens work, firmly rooted in a sense of hope. This production recognises this.

Reviewer: Hannah Davies