When the Sea Swallows Us Whole, VAULT Festival

Image result for coastal erosion

by Dora Bodrogi

Climate, sexuality, religion, growing up, friendship, abandonment, and cats come together in the dystopian yet quirky play. Natasha Collie invites us to a small seaside town on the verge of disappearing. As the coast erodes further and further, the waves and the merciless demolition authorities threaten the community’s homes. Coming of age in a place that is succumbing piece by piece to the sea is a strange experience.

Such is the fate of the three characters we meet. Mila (Charlotte O’Leary) is fourteen, sassy, stubborn, and outspoken. A year on since her mother left this sinking ship of a town, her only solace is her long-time best friend, nervous and superstitious Doll (Jack Archer). They rummage the coastal wreckage for cherry coke, plan for their shared dream house to move into one day, and wonder whether the erosion is a form of moral, godly punishment.

One day, Mila’s daily watch for the single ferry – in the hopes of her mother returning against all odds – is disturbed by an unexpected visitor. Enter city girl Posy (Jacoba Williams), who stirs new and conflicting emotions in Mila and pushes her to think outside the confines of this claustrophobic wasteland doomed to imminently become history. One of the most endearing moments of the play is when Mila asks Posy to “un-kiss” her in the wake of three people and a dog (literally) falling victim to the sea. Can Mila shed her fears that the disaster is her fault, and realise that there is a whole wide world out there?

The cast give Mila, Doll, and Posy a brilliant rapport. There is a somewhat predictable rivalry as Mila struggles to choose between staying in the town with Doll, and giving into her feelings for Posy and the escape she can offer. However, this is not your typical love triangle. Mila’s development from stubborn adolescence to openness and love is portrayed fabulously by O’Leary, whose comedic timing is also excellent. She’s complimented by Williams’s Posy, charming and a true breath of fresh air with a hint of Sugar from Sugar Rush in her that fits the seaside setting oddly well. Archer’s Doll seems like a less fleshed-out character at first, but eventually his personal journey, his anxiety as the one left behind, and his obsession with puma sightings culminate in a development worth staying for.

On top of the writing and acting, the one technical element that is to be praised above all is the lighting. The way this production’s lighting designer (Ryan Joseph Stafford) uses it does more than simply set the mood or separate scenes and perspectives. It tells us unuttered parts of the story. The production also supports AKT, a charity fighting LGBTQ+ youth homelessness, which deserves a mention especially due to its relevance to Mila’s arc, thus fiction and reality meet in a productive and commendable way. On top of its technical brilliance and aforementioned themes, the elegiac symbolism of the sea, erosion, and watchful feline eyes throughout the play is touching, powerful, and elevates the story to another level (hopefully above sea levels).

When the Sea Swallows Us Whole runs through 9 February.

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