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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Sea

They stamp on you but they wipe their little boots first— Hatch
The Sea
Eileen Atkins as Mrs Rafi and David Haig as Hatch (Photo: Sasha Gusov)
Edward Bond's curious comedy The Sea, directed by Jonathan Kent and starring the formidable Eileen Atkins, is given a brilliant production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. However I found the play itself inexplicable in parts and I question whether it is deserving of such talent and theatrical panache. True, it has some interesting themes as we look at a society about to be changed by the First World War and the social upheaval that it seemed to precipitate but there are aspects to it which are absurd and they sit awkwardly alongside those which are realistic and meaningful.

The play gets an immense opening scene, a projected, rolling storm with the loud crashing of white water waves, a shipwreck and the loss of a young life. We are then immediately thrown into a light Edwardian comedy set in the draper's shop where Mrs Rafi (Eileen Atkins) shows her discrimination as a shopper. She tries on leather gloves, bangs her fist on the counter to test their resilience and splits the seam. Meanwhile, Hatch (David Haig) is torn between needing customers and not needing customers like Mrs Rafi, who costs him more than he can make in profit with her high handed denigration of his drapery stock and contempt for his station. This scene has delightful one liners from Mrs Rafi and her paid companion, the downtrodden and often disapproved of, Jessica Tilehouse (Marcia Warren). Of course it also Eileen Atkins' splendid delivery which makes a line like, "Please don't try to hustle me into a purchase!" to Miss Tilehouse inimitable and very funny. The words she uses are archaic too, lovely descriptive words like "shoddy" for a certain type of poor quality fabric made from wool waste.

Although we can sympathise with the strain that the poor draper is under, his descent into insanity is less than plausible. It takes the form of his being convinced that, as the coastguard , he must not rescue any drowning men because he believes that the ships in distress are space craft and the sailors are aliens sent to invade earth. Just as the madman Hatch is listened to by the other men on the beach in his mileu, we switch to one of Mrs Rafi's privately produced house entertainments where she lords it over an amateur production in a female dominated society of refinement.

The Second Act commences on a grey slate stone beach, with a brooding sky and the mourning figures of the dead man's fiancée Rose (Mariah Gale) and the rescued friend, Willy Carson (Harry Lloyd) as they examine their loss and see little future here by the sea. Hatch loses it completely as Mrs Rafi pushes him over the edge by rejecting bolts of cloth he has ordered. The cliff top funeral scene is stolen by Miss Tilehouse with her bizarre, delayed descant accompaniment to the hymns and corresponding irritation from Mrs Rafi. An interlude follows when Mrs Rafi talks about class with surprising insight and dreads old age in a moving speech, "Old, ugly, whimpering, dirty, pushed about on wheels and threatened." while looking back on a life which she feels she has thrown away. As well as anticipating the war, "Why bombs and germs and gas? How do we get better?" Bond also makes some prediction as to the future when he talks about the evolution from rat to rat catcher and the hope that people will be transplanted into a better designed more resilient body.

Paul Brown's designs are authentically Edwardian but the emphasis on the crashing storms confused, this not being a play about the dominance of, and dependence on the sea, of the inhabitants. There are however plenty of ideas here, the only one Bond himself called a comedy. But with Edward Bond everything is relative; his play Saved involve a baby being stoned to death. Eileen Atkins is superbly regal with her Edwardian handsome dresses and big hats but Bond is an acquired taste.

The next production in the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company's 2007-8 opening season will be Margueritethe new musical from Boublil and Schonberg, creators of Les Miserables and based on Alexandre Camus' La Dame aux Camelias which previews from 6th May.

Editor's Note: This play had a brief run by a small Off-Broadway company last year. To read a review of that production go here.

Written by Edward Bond
Directed by Jonathan Kent

Starring: Eileen Atkins, David Haig, Marcia Warren
With: Harry Lloyd, David Burke, Russell Tovey, Jem Wall, John Branwell, Selina Griffiths, Emma Noakes, Sarah Annis, William Chubb, Mariah Gale, Philippa Urquhart
Design: Paul Brown
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Projections: Sven Ortel
Music: Steven Edis
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 400 0626
Booking to 19th April 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 23rd January 2008 performance at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)

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