The coastline is crumbling, business is drying up, rotten seaweed is throttling a sleepy town and dragging it into the depths. Lucy Catherine’s Sea Life at The Hope Theatre is a jaunty pastoral production with a dark heart, unpicking the image of the British seaside towns as quaint places steeped in nostalgic glory.
Bob, Roberta and Eddie are siblings who own a pub with no customers. The last remnants of the town’s living population, Bob and Eddie have found work in the only thriving business left – disinterring corpses before the coastal graveyard crumbles into the sea. Meanwhile, Roberta waltzes around the pub telling stories of her family history to imaginary customers. As coffins are built and bodies dug up, harsh truths are forced into the light and the siblings must face the reality of their lives in this rotting paradise.
Sea Life attempts to tackle every family drama trope under the sun: isolation, growing up, unfeeling mothers, absent fathers, a distorted family legacy, lost love, jealousy, rivalry, with a creepy-close pair of twins thrown into the mix for good measure. The play is also talking about Britain, how glorious pasts are concocted in the face of uncertain futures, about the fate of the young in an aging population and the grim but profitable business of mortality. The play creaks and groans under the weight of all this meaning, threatening to break, crumble and fall away itself.
The play is sharply funny, its funereal comedy holding us captive through the various twists and turns of the action. Black humour is the glue holding this uneven production together. Vicky Gaskin is a treat as Roberta, the emotional heart of the play, simultaneously a wide-eyed child and surrogate mother to her love-starved brothers. Her connection with her twin Bob is sweet but the real power of the play lies in her relationship with Eddie, played by Jack Harding with wrenching poignancy – he sees the world of the play with a clear eye and his despair is explosive.
Sea Life’s creative team are undoubtedly ambitious: the disintegrating set is used to great effect and I can almost smell the seaweed rising from the coast, but in the intimate venue of The Hope Theatre, sometimes the reliance on boisterous staging falls flat. There is no hiding from your audience in this tiny theatre, and too often we can see the strings.
Director Matthew Parker seems divided – the play at one moment tries to decrypt the denial around this family’s legacy, and then promptly devolves into performing it, losing its grip on reality entirely in the second half. Ghosts are dragged back to life, family history repeats itself and all the clarity and truth the characters have fought for is dragged down like a drunken swimmer tangled in so much seaweed.
With a sharp script and earnest performances, Sea Life is much like its characters: at its best when striving to face the truth, and at its worst when indulging in damaging acts of fantasy. An entertaining night at the theatre, there’s a great play in here somewhere. Maybe it just hasn’t been dug up yet.
Sea Life is on until 11th June 2016. Click here for more information.