Jammy Voo’s A Corner of the Ocean begins with the disappearance of a man who has apparently drowned in a lake in Germany. This, though, is only the touchstone for the stories of four very different women who themselves are, like poet Stevie Smith, not waving, but drowning, metaphorically at least.
On the one hand, there’s an American teacher (Emily Kreider) who chats directly to God (after attracting his attention by switching a lamp on and off), enumerates her frustrations and then takes well-earned revenge on an over-achieving colleague in a Philadelphia high school. On the other, there’s a Norwegian academic (Yngvild Aspeli), who claims that people can disappear into their own ‘internal black hole’, appears to precipitate a series of apocalyptic disasters in Oslo and comes to believe that she is being eaten by an animal, from the inside out. Somewhere in between are an agoraphobic (Eliza Wills Crisp), whose flat becomes a waterfall of leaks and who endures a lonely and melancholic Christmas, and a nostalgic kleptomaniac (Kate Edwards) who becomes obsessed with the stories she wrote as a teenager, some of which seem to echo the lives of the other characters and one of which – tantalisingly unfinished – features a man who falls into a lake.
Although these four characters occupy the same small and busy theatrical space and occasionally come together to sing, watch each other, hold buckets under dripping leaks or unleash their pent-up frustrations in some injudicious arms-aloft raving, the connection between them – or with the man in the lake – is never made explicit. For the most part, any link is metaphorical, and by switching between these four fragmentary narratives – not to mention a whole rattle bag of different theatre styles – A Corner of the Ocean generates a pervasive, almost claustrophobic sense of crowded isolation.
That’s far from being the whole story, however, and while it makes the piece sound rather bleak, any moments of despair and alienation are counter-balanced by both the warmth and idiosyncratic humanity of the four characters (and their respective performers) and a strain of sometimes wry, sometimes absurdist humour. Kreider’s triumphant account of her decidedly ungodly revenge on her rival teacher, Aspeli’s set-piece wrestling match with a mink stole, Edwards’ shoplifting confessions and Crisps’ slow waltz with a shadowplay ‘partner’ are all stand-out moments where the whole comes to exceed the sum of the parts and where this production offers far more than a fractured portrait of alienation.
In short, it’s a packed Fringe-standard 70 minutes, dense but not over-crowded, intricate but not overwhelmingly complex, and with enough emotional heft to sustain its non-linear and often poetic structure. True, there’s rather a lot of work out on the circuit at the moment which operates in similar territory – by companies like Little Bulb, FellSwoop, Improbable, Foster and Déchery, to name a few.
That’s possibly a trend which reflects a growing interest in the impact of globalisation and the internet, the rise of short-form flash fiction and the emphases of certain styles of theatre training (all four Jammy Voo-ers are LeCoq graduates, for instance), but A Corner of the Ocean is as good an example of the genre as any and fizzes with inventiveness without over-egging the proverbial pudding. What’s more, if you hang on till after the curtain call, you’ll discover that it even has a happy(ish) ending.