The name of Tallulah Brown’s latest play is richly allusive. A sea fret, as explained in the play text before the action begins, is ‘a wet mist or haze coming inland from the sea’. But ‘fret’ in normal parlance is a verb with its own connotations, none of which are Aeolian and all of which are relevant to this play. And I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the title sounds rather like “sea threat”.
Brown’s writing is consistently sharp and well-observed, animating an uncomplicated plot. Lucy and Ruby are thick as thieves, though we meet them after a split has already begun to form: Lucy is heading off to university, nudged forward by her sensible mother, while feckless Ruby, actively taking after her passive father, refuses to up sticks. Ruby’s littoral home is under threat of falling into an ever-eroding sea; most of the play’s tension arises from how she and her happy-go-lucky father deal with this, how long they have left, and how their situation widens the cracks between Ruby and Lucy.
It is perhaps not surprising that Lucy Carless, who plays Ruby, trained at a television acting workshop. In this play, her theatrical debut, she could project her voice a little more, and there’s some room for improvement in how she uses her body, particularly in the more hyperactive bits early on. But she phrases her delivery very well throughout, and, most importantly, is highly watchable. She makes it easy for us to be on her side, whether she’s happily dancing away her youth or suddenly assuming the mantle of responsibility, and we believe her when in the second half she’s directing dump-truck drivers and orchestrating a makeshift flood defence at the age of 18. Carless does a good job in a role that is more demanding than it looks.
Philippe Spall, who plays her father, might have the toughest role of all. Making us root for an irresponsible, frequently drunken father, albeit a benign one, Spall brings out the vulnerability in the smart-arse, the sensitivity and experience in the man-child, and the optimism in the cynic. He’s always relatable to even when he’s maddening.
He also lapses several times into song. Viewers may be split on this, since folksong is used by Brown as emotional shorthand in a relatively familiar way. You probably know the trope: one character starts in on a verse whose every cadence drips with cultural significance, before another singer is moved enough to join in on the second verse. Personally, I didn’t dislike it in this context: it was consistent with Spall’s character, and Spall has a solid set of pipes.
But its sentimentality reminded me of Bill Forsyth’s lightly comic but utterly unsentimental masterpiece Local Hero, in which a Scottish coastal town is threatened by American oilmen who want to pay off the locals in exchange for their sweet black gold. Similar themes emerge, cultural specificity is evoked, sympathetic characters are created, an impending clash is set up – yet Forsyth’s text ends much more memorably.
Perhaps this comparison is unfair: Sea Fret’s story, or the reality behind it, is still being written. Though the play is rarely intruded on by clunky exposition or dry facts, Brown has clearly done her homework, and the play text prologue – though not the play itself – makes reference to the Environmental Agency’s coastal management strategies. Act 1 is subtitled ‘Advance the Line’, one of these strategies; Act 2, ‘Hold the Line’. It gives the reader if not the viewer a sense of desperate trial-and-error heuristics. In this political context, that Brown achieves a sense of urgency while refusing to get didactic is impressive. We leave feeling convinced that government cuts and council mismanagement aren’t foregone conclusions, but the play never feels like political grandstanding.
In its avoidance of cliché and its insistence on realism, the writing is complemented by Simon Gethin Thomas’s beautifully evocative lighting, Rūta Irbīte’s well-thought-out set design and Daniel Balfour’s consistently evocative sound design. The theatre space is covered in beach pebbles, out of which rises a concrete hexagonal pillbox, a stage within a stage. Even the simplest props (a wonky bus-stop sign, a deckchair, some detritus) immerse us. Through all this, and through her strong direction of actors, Carla Kingham achieves something special: that sea fret doesn’t seem so far away.
Sea Fret is on until 22nd April 2017 at the Old Red Lion Theatre. Click here for more details.