John Osborne’s On the Beach provides its audience with a chance to draw breath amid the noise of the Fringe. It’s a quiet, contemplative piece, an act of taking stock. Over the course of the show Osborne describes in detail a walk he once took along Weymouth beach on a rare sunny English afternoon, a minor act of escape.
He gives us potted portraits of the people he encounters – the man reading an Irvine Welsh novel in his deck chair, the family playing a game of cricket together, and the elderly couple who remember the beach before it was clotted with stag and hen parties, for whom it provides a respite from a world that’s galloped on ahead of them – imagining their backstories.
The beach at Weymouth is a place Osborne last visited at the age of eleven and memory, both personal and cultural, shape this show. The British seaside is a strange kind of borderland, a place of Greeneland seediness and melancholy as well as ice cream cheer and arcade fire. Osborne captures that contrast through a process of collage. Some of his observations are simple, even a little mundane, but through a process of gentle layering a picture is painted. The show is not specifically about the decline of a place the or the laying of coastal ghosts, it’s not a hymn to what once was, rather a brief, refreshing paddle in what remains. It deals in nostalgia in the lightest of ways with the understanding that looking back won’t heal you, but it is important if you’re to move forwards.
Osborne’s conversational style of delivery is delicate, even hesitant in places; it’s the antithesis of aggressive, his words lapping like waves, his demeanour that of a slightly hung over, rumpled puppy. His story is intercut with music – Belle and Sebastian, Nina Nastasia’s apt ‘Our Day Trip’ – and seaside imagery is projected on the wall behind him: merry-go-rounds and time-bleached photographs, a solitary figure sitting on a bench and staring out at the water. An excursion to Great Yarmouth, care of a friend of his who lives by the sea but hates the feel of sand beneath her feet, feels digressive and underdeveloped in comparison to the rest of the material.
It’s the accumulation of detail that really makes the piece shine. There’s a sadness to it but also a hopefulness, a courage in its quietness. It invites its audience to slow down, remove their shoes and open their eyes, to walk with him for a while, an invitation which feels particularly necessary and welcome amid the clamour of the Edinburgh Fringe.