Simon Stephens’s play, On the Shore of the Wide World, takes its name from John Keats’ poem, “When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be,” whose speaker wavers between his knowledge of humanity’s cosmic insignificance and his desire for a lasting kind of love and fame.
It’s an apt framework for understanding Stephens’ drama. Set in Stockport, a suburb of Manchester, it chronicles three generations of the Holmes family, a working class clan characterized by a degree of disfunction that will ring familiar to contemporary theatergoers.
Through the eventful but not altogether exceptional coming-of-age story of teenaged Alex (Ben Rosenfield) and his girlfriend Sarah (Tedra Millan) and the parallel journeys of Alex’s father Peter (C.J. Wilson), mother Alice (Mary McCann), grandfather Charlie (Peter Maloney) and grandmother Ellen (Blair Brown), Stephens attempts to narrativize the dominant tensions in Keats’ poem. While he is successful in that respect with the support of a strong cast, the play meanders too much over the course of nearly two and a half hours. Split between too many characters and subplots, audiences may ultimately find themselves grasping for direction and a sense of conclusion.
While Stephens may be a bit long-winded, his characters, by and large, are not. They often speak in short, clipped sentences. Their humor, meanwhile, is dry and fast. And they tend to bottle their emotions, a fact that becomes abundantly clear in the wake of the play’s central event, a random and tragic event that occurs off stage in the time period between the first and second acts. The surprising event—I won’t give it away—influences the course of the characters’ lives, but it takes a long time for them to fully acknowledge it. By the time discussion finally occurs, its power has been somewhat diminished by a potpourri of other dramas.
Generally, life seems to just keep on rolling bumpily along for the Holmes tribe. One generation moves to a new city and struggles with the cultural adjustment, another battles age old vices, another faces relationship woes. It’s a lot for one story to juggle, and Stephens manages it, mostly, by jumping from scene to scene rather quickly, often cutting one off and moving on to the next one before it has the chance to blossom.
A scene in which Peter confronts his father Charlie about hitting his mother, for instance, lasts just 10 lines after the accusation has been leveled before it ends. When Alex brings up the violence to Charlie in another scene later on, Charlie responds curtly with a simple “Right” and follows it with some pat wisdom : “I’ll tell you something. Peter is a much, much better dad to you than I was to him. And if you ever have a kid I bet you a thousand pounds that you’ll be a better dad to your kid than Peter is to you. But I was a better dad to Peter than my dad was to me. You might say I couldn’t have been any worse. But even so. It counts.” The scene ends after that and the issue is dropped.
The play ends with a comparable lack of finality. Though a transformation—of the variety Keats chronicles in his poem— has surely taken place, its trajectory has been so long and winding that it’s been deprived of potency.