Set in 1907, the action of the play takes place in a tiny seaside village. It begins with a tempestuous storm and ends in sunlit calm with two young lovers breaking away from an isolated, hierarchical society. This is a harsh world where the weak are savaged by the strong and the strong misuse their power. Mrs. Rafi, a bullying queen bee of the village and her clique of simpering ladies, tramples on everyone’s feelings because she feels they expect it, and the local draper, Hatch, a sad, mad little man, full of fears that visitors from outer space are stealing people’s brains and replacing them with bits of machinery, are ranged against each other and supported by their own idiosyncratic allies.
This is the second play that David has directed for The Company Of Players. His first was The Trial Of God, performed in October 2000.
I first saw this piece of “theatrical eccentrica” (as Sheridan Morley called it in his review of the original production in May 1973) five years ago, at The Barn Theatre. I didn’t understand it then, so hoped that my visit to the CoPs production would explain this play of indeterminate gender and style; “an eerie crossing of Daphne du Maurier Cornish Gothic with Terrance Rattigan High Comedy” (Morley again). It didn’t. I turned to The Guide to Samuel French’s plays which contains a synopsis of every one of the hundreds of titles they publish. These thorough resumes of the plot usually run to ten or twelve lines. About The Sea, they say: “The action centres round the drowning of a young man and the repercussions, emotional and political, it has on the tight, inward-looking village community”. That’s it. So I don’t feel quite so bad for not having a clue what it’s all about. But when a chef prepares a complex dish you don’t have to know what’s going on in his head in order to enjoy the meal, CoPs provided me with an excellent supper!
The production started with a bang – literally. Crashes of thunder, lightning, lowering clouds, wind, rain, a stormy sea. On the beach in front of us a wild, bearded figure gesticulating and shouting to an unseen man in the sea behind us, screaming for help to find his drowning friend. In this one short scene was set the standard of design, lighting, sound effects, direction and acting which we were to enjoy for the rest of the evening.
Philip Sheail’s set for the beach was very simple – sky, a groyne, the beach – but very effective, proving a useful space for the draper’s shop, the outcasts hut, the drawing room, the cliff top, all of which were to follow. These locations were achieved by well rehearsed changes by cast members bringing on and erecting various simple pieces. Immediately we knew where we were; the restraint was admirable. A small point though: episodic changes done in full view always break the continuity of a piece; in plays like this it is inevitable and unavoidable. It helps when done as here, by costumed characters, rather than anonymous black-clad figures, but it would help if the pieces of scenery were made as anonymous behind as they are representational in front: it jars a little when a piece of wall is taken down and turned round to be carried off, its bits of 2-by-1, struts and cleats visible to all.
The lighting was imaginative and effective throughout, particularly the cloud effect – used necessarily but sparingly – and I was most impressed with Ken Allford’s change in the quality of the light when the curtains were drawn to shut out the sunlight and the electric lights were switched on. An effective detail, this (too often ignored), made to work perfectly by the accurate operation of Andrew Sweeney.
The sound design and operation of Steve Beeston and Tony Mason complemented the work of their lighting brothers well. I liked the plaintive song which introduced the acts and the haunting melodies between scenes. They seemed to suggest, perhaps, an Irish – or at least Celtic – location rather than an East Anglian one, but the mood seemed right. The sound effects which were numerous, were equally effective, although the night I was there one of the gun crews should have been put on a charge for a touch of idleness (which fazed the actors not a jot – well done!).
Wardrobe was in the skilled hands of Shelagh Ryan and was excellent (the women) very effective (the men – I know, it’s always more difficult to dress men). I had a quibble with the Vicar at the play rehearsal: his suit looked more 50’s than 1907. And in any case, in that period, wouldn’t he have worn one of those long black frock things when he was “off duty”?
With a backstage crew as strong as this one supporting them, the cast had a high standard to emulate. They had a good director, in David Crook, to lead them and he succeeded in forging them into a solid team. Like cricket, the performance of a play can only succeed if, given that some of the players are going to shine more than others, the team itself is strong. Under Mr Crook’s captaincy, this proved the case. I have to criticise him in one respect, however. He started the play with tremendous energy, then chose an extraordinarily slow pace for the following scene. A slow expositive scene (as this was) is always difficult; following such a display as we opened with, I found this leisurely pace quite trying. Perhaps it was intentional; if so, I respect it, but I can’t agree with it. That said, the pace picked up later and I found little fault with Mr Crook’s overall handling of the play’s structure and dynamic.
The first, storm-ridden scene introduces us to three important characters, Willy Carson, Evens and Hatch, but they are more of the scene than in it, their shouts and cries are part of the tempest. It is not until calm descends that we see them as individuals. Nick Laycock brought an effective simplicity to Carson, grieving in a sincere yet understated manner over his drowned friend and, as the play progressed, realising that he is drawn closer to Rose, his friend’s girl. This was a thoughtful, honest performance. As Rose, Julia Ryan showed us an actress capable of stillness and quiet which was most moving, making Rose’s gradual awareness of her feelings for Carson more joyously effective; excellent playing.
Godfrey Marriott’s Evens, appearing as a huge, unintelligible silhouette during the storm, revealed his character later as a complex one. Evens is an intelligent, articulate philosopher, a gentle giant who has chosen to live the outcast life of a drifter in a tumble down hut on the seashore. Because of his mode of life, his appearance bothered me a little: although a little untidy, he was very clean, his coat uncreased and his shirt white. I would have liked to have seen him a little more scruffy. But the performance was sound: gentle, thoughtful, restrained – perhaps a little too restrained, particularly alcoholically. He’s referred to as drunk (even by himself) yet showed little outward sign of overindulgence – and there were occasions when he should have. In this respect, his performance gave no reason for the disdain in which the town-folk held him.
The third character to emerge from the storm was the most difficult to play, Hatch, the draper. Mark James grabbed hold of this complex man with both hands and gave us a fine performance. Hatch seems a straightforward town draper until we slowly realise he is talking absolute rubbish – with complete belief – about UFO’s and ET’s and little green men taking over the world. In the course of the play this insidious eccentricity and the paranoia which accompanies it becomes full-blown, homicidal madness. Mr James showed us this eerie development with great skill and passion. I have one criticism: when he was totally mad, I found his restrained, halting delivery – groups of words at a time, with pauses between – a little trying; I longed for him to lose his apparent control and go totally berserk. But this slight cavil takes nothing away from an excellent performance.
Hatch was surrounded by three red-necked acolytes. The most prominent of these was Hollarcut, played by Chris Janes in a really fine performance. This actor used his body (long and lanky) to excellent effect, adding a rural accent which was, although not quite East Anglian, consistent and convincing. The result was a gauche, shambling, retarded peasant with an unquestioning loyalty to – almost love of – Hatch, who raised our sympathy and revulsion in almost equal measure; memorable playing. The other two sidekicks, Carter and Thompson, had little to do by comparison, but Andy Kirtley and Steve Beeston did it well.
My first out-loud laughs of the evening came in the draper’s shop with the performances of Ann Neuff as Louise Rafi, the “Lady of the Manor” and Jackie Lawn as Jessica Tilehouse, her “Companion”. The feeling that we were seeing a well-drilled double act here was a frequent one (especially their “upstaging” in the funeral scene), although each created an independent character of real worth. I sometimes felt that Ms Neuff was preparing for (or, perhaps, reprising?) her Lady Bracknell, but this was no bad thing: it was that sort of part. She showed us later she was capable, too, of the long, serious speech that demands attention. Ms Lawn, as well as bags of comedy style, has a pleasant signing voice, used well at the funeral. These were too most enjoyable performances.
The other notable comedienne (can you still spell it that way these days?) was Shelagh Ryan, as Mafanwy Price. Ms Ryan’s performance as a dog was a piece of really comic invention; her movements and facial expressions made me laugh so heartily I felt conspicuous in your tiny auditorium. But why not? Ms Ryan’s timing was excellent and her well-conceived performance genuinely funny.
The smaller parts in the play were well-filled by Claire McCabe (Jilly) and Jackie Clark (Rachel), who were convincing members of Mrs Rafi’s circle; Paul Morton gave the Vicar more real life than is sometimes found in small-part stage vicars; Tony Mason, as Davis, provided us with a suitably discreet and professional butler.
So how to sum up? The play wasn’t really a play, it was more a collection of very good and often funny dialogue, presented as loosely-connected scenes – one of which, the play rehearsal, seemed to have nothing to do with anything else at all. But for all that, it was a theatrical entertainment, and as such was very enjoyable. My mood was undoubtedly heightened by the sherry on arrival, the programme on my seat and the coffee and biscuits in the interval (all complimentary – and for everyone, not just the critic!), but the performance itself was entertaining and enriching and I thank the Company of Players for inviting me.