The Offing is a ‘distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge’. It’s also the title of the highly regarded novel by Benjamin Myers, adapted for the stage in this co-production between Live Theatre and Stephen Joseph Theatre. I picked up a second hand copy a few months ago in my local Oxfam Books but haven’t gotten round to reading it yet (although I fully intend to) so this review is not an exercise in comparison. There’s a question, which probably warrants a wider discussion, about how critics approach literary adaptations. Of course, the book and the stage version can’t exist in isolation from one another; they’re at least in conversation. But had I come to The Offing with loyalty to the prose, I would like to think I still would’ve enjoyed it on its own terms.
Set in the aftermath of the Second World War, The Offing is a tale of an unlikely friendship. Robert (James Gladdon), a 16 year old from a mining village in County Durham, feels the pull of the sea and perhaps something else greater than the life set out before him. He wanders far from home and stumbles upon Dulcie (Cate Hamer), a brusque and bohemian eccentric living alone by Robin’s Hood’s Bay. Despite their differences in age and background, the pair find a shared language in poetry when Robert demonstrates an aptitude for reading that Dulcie gladly encourages. They drink wine and coexist in prickly harmony but all the while, there’s an undercurrent of buried secrets and the threat of encroaching thunder
The Offing is about ghosts and the shadows the past casts over the future. When Robert meets Dulcie his fate seems predetermined. Like his father and his father before him, he’s resigned to work down the mines. But Dulcie opens up possibilities in him which he is yet to acknowledge in himself. In return, Robert encourages Dulcie to seek closure on her previous relationship with Romy Landau (Ingvild Lakou), a German poet whose final collection (also titled The Offing) gathers dust in the old studio. The mystery of Romy Landau slowly builds to a poignant reckoning, as the story effortlessly slips back-and-forth in time, moving between reality, memory and imagination.
Playwright Janice Okoh writes with lyrical precision; her dialogue sings but remains in the realm of naturalism. The burgeoning friendship between Dulcie and Robert is believable in assured performances from James Gladdon and Cate Hamer. Under the sensitive direction of Paul Robinson, their chemistry shines through. Ingvild Lakou is superb as Romy Landau who portrays a spectral echo as well as a character in her own right. Her ethereal presence isn’t over-played for shock value or cheap thrills, aided by the subtleties of Gemma Paynes’ movement direction. The supernatural aspect could easily eclipse or become the main action but instead is used sparingly giving precedent to the wider themes of the play: friendship and love, obligation and independence, social mobility and class.
I understand some of the novel’s bucolic setting and romanticism might’ve been lost in translation. It’s a difficult thing to recreate expansive nature in an enclosed theatre space. That being said, Helen Goddard’s set, which is beautifully stripped-back and considered, enhances the ghostly, rural atmosphere. A painting of two women hanging on the bare wooden walls foreshadows revelations about Dulcie’s past. With few unintrusive details, the location and time period are made clear. Ana Silvera’s sound design adds a magical, folkloric element too. This reflects Robert’s childish wonder at finding himself in a landscape so far removed from what he knows; the enclosed coal mine, with its grit, danger and dirt, is very different from the sweeping beauty of the woodlands and glimmer of coastline on the horizon.
The Offing is a stormy play which pulls at the heartstrings and holds your attention. It has an unpretentious magnetism which I appreciate. I went with a friend who said she sometimes struggles to focus in theatre but that she was completely lost in the story. By the end, we were both quite emotional. Now to read the book.
The Offing is on until Saturday 27th November. More info and tickets here.