The British seaside is typically zoned around tragedy, associated with terminal Imperial decline, a faded sense of glamour meets an England England sense of tacky heritage as the global tides lap eroding at the promenades. Its relationship to national identity and destiny, to industry and globalisation, is written into the sea itself where a boundary between earth and the categorical blue of water speaks also of death, the infinite and other worlds. In On the Beach John Osborne tells us a man is sitting on the pebbles staring out to sea: “everyone needs a place to make sense of things”.
As English as they come, Osborne’s ability to retain this sense of wonder is key to overcoming the parochial and melancholy possibilities of his subject matter. As a storyteller he is as genial and generous a presence onstage as you’re likely to find. Superadorable, like a lolcat left out in the rain, he gives off the impression of a man who would make a shambling mixtape at the drop of a festival hat. Occasionally he shoots a look over his iPad like he’s getting away with something, as if he can’t believe he’s doing this and we’re here listening, which betrays nothing more calculating than a supreme delight in storytelling. In this way Osborne is about as far from Matthew Arnold at Dover hearing the “melancholy, long withdrawing roar” of his dreams for Christendom as you’re likely to get, the desire here is not to chart decline or frame the place explicitly in terms of national life, but to flick the compass needle and head, with a combination of gingerliness and an open heart, in the direction of common experience.
Figured by the use of a few bars from Belle & Sebastian’s Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying and a longer excursion with Ray Davies Afternoon Tea the piece travels a subjective articulation: from Osborne being hired to do a rubbish job in a seaside town and hating it, giving birth to a curiosity about the place in which he finds himself. And so we get a kind of man who fell to earth (but didn’t like television) excursion into the amusement arcades, past the sad absurd mechanical prizes and screaming vector graphics, to the slots pumping out coins to their delighted winners who, Osborne informs us, haven’t been that excited since Henmania. He reminds us of the still existing couples that met at winter dances, now frail and living through confusing menus changes: “ciabatta, machiatto, monster chaos energy drinks”. And the anxiety of telling children there will be “no Mickey Mouse this year” but “we’ll make sure we go somewhere”, the familiar strain comes soothed with an even-tempered salve. You want to call Osborne a secular saint of a kind, there is something of the blessed fool in this tremendous generosity of spirit and optimism, which never self-dramatises or comes off as sententious, mainly because it’s funny. He’s a storyteller who bears the marks of courage and thought it can take to tell stories about ourselves when you’re not coming from the glib fixities of travel writing, when your reflex is a deep consideration of the observer and performer, when you put yourself on a limb in the most ordinary of places.
And it’s the marriage of acerbic observation and a fundamental good nature, comforting like a broadcast radio crackle, with which Osborne builds his kind of faintly progressive nostalgia. He reminds us that the sadness we feel at the end of a day at the beach is the curtailing of familial adventure, it’s that the sun will eventually set on the people we love that makes those fortnights vivid fixtures through our year. Arnold can froth in the foam and the EDL can confuse Brighton Pavillion for a Mosque, but with Osborne the seaside is a delipidated memory palace for us to remember what we have in common, and more fundamentally: that we are all visitors. And in this disposition the decline at the seaside is more a place for beings-toward-death, and for the fundamental curiosity and intelligence that comes from that felt realisation. And where this was a bit too obvious in John Peel’s Shed which felt like a bit of lecture, here in tooled and cushioned prose much more is being done to connect to our sense of adventure. In his tour of British seasides Paul Theroux reckoned that “all English people had opinions on which seaside places in England were pleasant and which were a waste of time. This was in the oral tradition. … They took well-organized vacations and held very strong views on places to which they had never been.” With Osborne we find an oral tradition swimming against that particular tide.
A quick twenty minutes of Make/Shift’s Kick provides a seaside in constant disintegration and remaking. They draw theatre and storytelling in large letters on the sand, and most of the piece sees them rescoring that over and over as the tide washes around their ankles. Lots of expert flailing, and refusing to decide whether it is the most heartbreaking of romances on the promenade, or a picture postcard with some giant norks painted like some sort of prison-tattoo rabbits. Here theatre is sent up higher than a mishandled helium balloon, mock portent as the “Mer People” fail to be conjured by zero-budget props, the mocking of trying, the mock derailment of narrative by the presence of the performers. And yet the trick that has you not squint at the lost balloon against the sun, but feel like you’re right there being hauled to the heavens on a bag of squeaky gas. Co-authorship and its subsequent co-failure, co-trying and the possiblity of co-nihilism – it’s sweet and funny as any stick of rock riven through with the words “pervert vicar”.
Based (very) loosely on the Little Mermaid the seaside is a place of adolescent sexual longing, where a baby is mysteriously born and Caroline Horton’s character falls in love with a vicar. If this all comes off a bit like Wes Anderson directing Habeus Corpus it comes off remarkably fresh. Chris Bailey’s ludicrously lascivious vicar moves from the bully pulpit to the finger-licking nipple dance with tremendous comic grace, and Horton’s ingenue plays the kind of goody goody games of straight-laced otherness, which balances pathos with mad comic agency, with a kind of militant attention to comic detail. Bedding the dazzling deconstruction is a genuine sense of weird, a oceanic layer of odd, where the parochial growing-up-in-a-seaside town collides head on with the liminal weirdness of the sea, where creatures that walk, fly and swim mingle with glistening babies made of blankets. At one point the audience are launched on a boat, life jackets are inflated in the throatily laughing stalls and a gauzy blanket is fluttered on stage – and all the undoing doesn’t undo the imagery of this alter-place.
Being at the seaside is being part of something, being part of something is in some sense always to be on the outside of it. And if the sea continues to produce hybrid cultures, and permeable populations of others come from the sea, there are certain dispositions to our myths that make those myths bearable. We’re always in-between, so here’s to the outsider seaside. Alltogethernow: “Oh! I do like to be beside the outside” etc.