Sea Life, Hope Theatre

I always think life in a British seaside town must be idyllic. Quaint and friendly, with the smell of chips, ice cream and salt in the air, the sun always shines and people share a friendly smile as they pass families playing in the sand and surf.

I know the reality is completely different. Broken economies are driving young people away, there are instances of racism and small mindedness, as there are everywhere else inland. Lucy Catherine’s Sea Life, set near Dover, captures this stark reality with three disfunctional, adult siblings in a town that’s literally and figuratively falling into the sea. Roberta is the agoraphobic fantasist who runs the family’s bar that never has customers. Her inappropriately clingy twin Bob builds coffins to inter the local cemetery’s residents that must be cremated before the cliffside where they rest crumbles into the channel. Their lone wolf brother Eddie, a failed artist, is one of a team tasked with digging up the dead. Their long-dead mother’s looming reappearance, constant rain and an anonymous American company that’s taken over the town’s economy has pushed these three to a breaking point that results in poetic, disturbing tragedy of classical proportions that’s also really rather funny. 

Catherine’s script is full of punchy, ferocious dialogue, constantly pulled taut by Matthew Parker’s direction. The three characters have radically different ways of coping (or not coping) with their dead-end lives, causing a natural undercurrent of tension that regularly erupts. The storyline is wonderfully unpredictable and increasingly macabre, though never implausible. Catherine’s gift here is showing a scenario that both feels like a work of fiction, and something that could totally happen under the perfect combination of circumstances and personalities. A couple of false endings detract from what could otherwise be a brilliant script, but the cathartic ending keeps things from being excessively dark.

The trio of actors have good chemistry, particularly twins Roberta and Bob (Vicky Gaskin and Chris Levens) who are uncomfortably close. Jack Harding as Eddie is an extraordinary pressure cooker who’s explosion is satisfyingly horrific to take in. 

Laura Harling’s set design is a fantastically detailed example of the possibilities able to be achieved in a tiny performance space. There is some slightly cheesy movement work that could otherwise be communicated with sound and lighting, but this is brief and the overall visual effect certainly adds to the play’s truthfulness.

Sea Life is a polished little gem of a play, and an excellent showcase for actors and designers alike. It’s not perfect, but Catherine’s script and Parker’s direction are a near-perfect example of contemporary naturalism.

Sea Life runs through 11 June.

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