The Sea @ Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

cast list
Eileen Atkins
David Haig
Marcia Warren

directed by
Jonathan Kent
Edward Bonds 1973 play is a curious hybrid. An unsettling mixture of black farce, social satire, poetic symbolism and metaphysical musings, The Sea is by no means an obvious choice for West End fare.

However, Artistic Director of Haymarket Theatre Company Jonathan Kent is evidently keen to challenge as well as entertain audiences during his year-long tenure. And this thought-provoking if uneven show is certainly more successful than his disappointingly crude opening production of Wycherleys restoration comedy The Country Wife.

Set in an unnmamed small coastal town in East Anglia in Edwardian times, The Sea begins in tragic mode with a drowning, then switches to comedy of manners in a drapers shop where the overbearing local lady of the manor Mrs Rafi patronizes its oleaginous owner Hatch in every sense. The tone becomes increasingly surreal as afterwards Hatch confides to his small band of credulous followers his belief that the drowning is connected to a planned invasion of aliens from outer space.

Drawing-room comedy takes over in Mrs Rafis house where she and the group of deferential spinsters she bullies are rehearsing the annual charity play, but then the mood darkens again as Willy, best friend of the drowned man, visits his grieving fiance Rose, Mrs Rafis niece. And simmering small-town resentments and suspicions are just about to boil over.

Paul Browns well-observed designs of rocky beach, drapery and manor house set the scene nicely for the conflict which unfolds, while Sven Ortels dramatic projections of crashing waves backed up by the sounds of Paul Groothiuss sea-storm and Mark Hendersons lightning effects lend a brooding atmosphere.

In this isolated, claustrophobic maritime community more reminiscent of late Ibsen than Bonds usual influence Brecht hitherto suppressed tensions threaten to crack open the status quo of power relations. Bonds political interest is implied rather than spelled out in this enigmatic play, but class is shown to be a controlling force, while the distrust of outsiders taken to ludicrous extremes in Hatchs case may signal a nationalistic xenophobia which will soon show itself all too brutally in the Great War, as suggested by the big booming guns of the local garrisons firing practice over the sea.

Kent may not quite reconcile the different elements in the play, but he has marshalled a strong cast, with outstanding performances from the two leads. Eileen Atkins is a wickedly funny Mrs Rafi, giving her Lady Bracknellish persona a cruelly unsentimental edge in her own domineering egomaniacal way she is quite as mad as Hatch. David Haig brilliantly plays the deluded draper, who finally explodes after years of shopkeeping subservience, angrily cutting to shreds his luxury curtain material then running amok on the beach with his knife.

Marcia Warren is amusingly eccentric as Mrs Rafis deferential companion Jessica, especially in the anarchic clifftop funeral scene, while Russell Tovey gives good support as Hatchs none too bright but loyal protg Hollarcut. Harry Lloyd and Mariah Gale fail to make much sense of their underwritten roles as Willy and Rose, brought together though their mutual desire for escape. However, David Burke makes a big impact as Evens, a hermit who lives in a shack by the sea, who believes that human beings have become aliens in their own world.

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