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A CurtainUp London London Review
Sea Plays

I always wanted to be buried on dry land. — Yank
When Eugene O’Neill’s first staged plays — his four one-act dramas following the crew of the merchant ship S.S. Glencairn — were premiered by the Provincetown Players during the latter part of World War I, the crashing of the Atlantic waves against the Cape Cod peninsula provided the most naturally dramatic backdrop possible. The Old Vic Tunnels below Waterloo Station, the Old Vic Theatre’s alternative underground venue in every sense, – can’t quite match that seaworthiness. But its dark, labyrinthine passageways with trains thundering overhead afford a dankly atmospheric setting which this production of The Sea Plays (which for some reason omits the final instalment Moon of the Caribbees) takes full advantage of. Even before we reach the stage space we pass by grimy, bare-chested stokers shovelling coal amid the din of turbines.

The first play, East Bound for Cardiff, begins with a full assault on our senses with a thrillingly enacted sea storm as the crew are tossed around like the barrels and drenched with water, while alarm bells ring. When the tempest subsides, we see a mortally wounded man slumped on his bed with his shipmates gathered around in helpless sympathy. With time running out, Carsten Hayes’s desperate Yank relives some of the highs and lows of his seafaring life with long-time loyal Irish buddy Driscoll (Matthew Travannion), while his death is followed by a moving burial at sea as the crew sing ‘For Those in Peril on the Sea."

In contrast to this elegiac ending, the mood in In the Zone is one of paranoia, as the Glencairn nears the war zone carrying high-explosives. With nerves on edge, the men suspect one of their mates of being a German spy because he furtively stashes a small, locked box under his mattress. The resulting showdown leads to a powerful scene of recrimination and humiliation as the past secrets of Jordan Bernarde’s Smitty are forcibly extracted.

The Long Voyage Home is set in a sleazy dockside tavern where the crew come to release the tensions of months at sea by drowning in whisky and beer. All except Raymond Sage’s innocent Swedish mariner Olson, who wants to stay sober so he can return home after more than ten years away, but he is no match for Amanda Boxer’s Cockney tart Freda and the other crafty landlubbers who want to shanghai him on to another ship.

O’Neill used his own experiences as a merchant seaman to give these maritime dramas an authentically salty flavour. The multinational characterization may tend to stereotype, and some of the dialogue is clunking, but there is still a strong sense of the hardship and camaraderie of long sea voyages, with the sailors having to rely on each other for survival despite cabin fever breaking out. This strange, self-contained world seems both a prison and an escape from the complications of life on land.

The performances are more impressive as an ensemble, rather than individually, but a few dodgy accents and struggles with acoustics don’t detract from the dynamic physical interaction. Designer Van Santvoord’s design of close-quartered bunk beds and low rafters enhance the claustrophobic intensity of the work, while Emma Chapman’s ambient lighting effects and Alex Baranowski’s superb sound texture of fog horns and creaking timber add much to the overall experience. It seems fitting that Kenneth Hoyt – who helms the show with such navigational assurance – is founder of Provincetown Repertory Theatre, based in the small town where the drama all began in 1916.


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Sea Plays
Written by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Kenneth Hoyt

Starring: Carsten Hayes, Matthew Travannion, Jordan Bernarde, Raymond Sage, Amanda Boxer
With: Mark Carter, Lauren Garnham, Ashley George, Gareth Kieran Jones, Michael Norledge, Chris O’Shea, Kristian Phillips, Vincent Santvoord, Matthew Thomas, Eva Traynor, Eddie Webber
Design: Van Santvoord
Lighting: Emma Chapman
Sound: Alex Baranowski
Running time: One hour 55minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7993 7420
Booking to 18th February 2012
Reviewed by Neil Dowden based on January 31st performance at Old Vic Tunnels, Station Approach Road, London SE1 8SW (Tube: Waterloo)
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