Cotton Wool @ Theatre 503, London

cast list
Joseph Arkley
Victoria Bavister
Owen Whitelaw

directed by
Lisa Spirling
This is a play that begins with an end. A funeral. Teenage brothers Callum and Gussie stand on a beach in their cheap black suits and pay their respects to their dead mother with cans of lager and a stolen bottle of vodka. Beneath their rowdy drunkenness, one thing is clear: they’re on their own now. All they have left is each other.

They make vague plans to start anew, to hop on a bus and head somewhere, anywhere, other than the damp, grey Scottish town in which they live. But something holds them back. Gussie has spotted something in the water, a familiar shape far out to sea, a body floating on the waves. He still half believes in childhood stories of selkie folk, seal spirits who can shed their skins, the souls of the dead calling out from the dark. He can’t leave until he is certain about what he has seen.

His older brother Callum is also distracted by the arrival in town of Harriet, a snarling Londoner with dyed black hair. She’s also on her own, searching for her estranged father, sleeping outside his house, her phone calls to him going unanswered. Though initially hostile to the brothers’ crude attempts to endear themselves to her (are you a vampire?), she starts to form a tender friendship with Callum, drawn together through a shared aloneness. This makes Gussie jealous, as he is both attracted to Harriet himself and envious of the hold she has on his brother, and this jealousy pushes him towards the dark embrace of the waves.

Ali Taylor’s play is touching and witty and quite wonderfully written. The brothers’ heavily accented use of language is turned into a source of music, lyrical and flowing. There is also much humour in their dialogue, which prevents the grim nature of the story from becoming too intense and overbearing. The simple set captures the grit and mist of the coastal location well, and a sense of loss and loneliness permeates, a sense of people floating, lost, and grabbing onto one another for comfort. The supernatural intrusion is laid on a little thick towards the end, but this is small complaint in a confident and moving piece of writing.

The acting is spot on as well, especially from Joseph Arkley and Owen Whitelaw as Callum and Gussie respectively. They both teeter on the line between manhood and boyhood, the former grappling with his adult responsibilities, having to take on too much too young (their alcoholic mother was little help even before she became ill); the latter volatile and at times younger than his sixteen years, prone to tantrums.

It’s a tautly directed piece that fits the space well and it only loses its way a little after a needless interval, when the pacing falters and the initial sure footing is lost, but still there’s much to revel in here, the language carries you along and the drama moves you without ever resorting to easy manipulation.

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