Sea Life, Hope Theatre - Review

First performed 16 years ago in Bristol, Lucy Catherine's Sea Life at the Hope Theatre marks its London premiere. With traces of Anthony Neilson's Dissocia* and Tabitha Mortiboy's Beacons in its DNA – but pre-dating both – Sea Life follows siblings Roberta, Bob and Eddie who own a pub in a permanenty 'off-season' coastal town... Except this pub is very much in use, diversified for the use of the new 'family business'.

Reflecting the entropy of the town, the local cliff faces endure aggressive erosion by the sea. This has not gone unnoticed by corporations keen to capitalise on the need for cremation for those already buried nearby, who are edging ever closer to the reach of the sea. This being the case, it has befallen on the siblings to physically deal with the relocation and cremation of those buried – on their own premises.

As you would expect in a play with this backstory, the subject of death in one form or other is ever-present, as are questions about quality of 'life'. Eddie (Jack Harding) the eldest has the most physically and emotionally-taxing job of exhuming all the deceased (including many family ancestors). Falling apart on the inside, Eddie has nothing but time to brood on his present circumstances and his former life as a 'failed' artist in London, his paintings hanging at home a constant reminder of this.

In contrast, Roberta and Bob – the twins – however don't want to talk about their grisly pastime, beyond the mechanics of their respective duties. Roberta – like a heroine from a Tennessee Williams play – has withdrawn into her interior world, imagining she's serving food to tourists, before the smell of seaweed and corpses coaxes her back to reality. In an environment where the dead are stored in every room, Roberta feels comfortable wearing her deceased mother's clothes. The reaction of Roberta's brothers though, speaks volumes about their relationships with their mother – to say nothing about the Hitchcockian inferences.

Vicky Gaskin as Roberta is vivacious – eccentric but never predictable – and has great chemistry with her 'twin' (Chris Levens). Sea Life hints at the 'insular' nature of their close relationship (so insular that even within the private world of the siblings, Eddie feels like an 'outsider'). This is a common trope in literature, especially when the siblings in question are physically and/or emotionally isolated from the rest of the world due to extreme circumstances. One of the most relevant examples of this is Ian McEwan's novel The Cement Garden, where the dead mother of Jack and Julie is encased in cement in the cellar, leaving the teenagers to fend for themselves and avoid foster care. Of course in Sea Life, it is the return of the mother's body that precipitates all manner of emotions in the latter half of the play, leading us to ponder on the truth behind their estrangement.

Throughout Sea Life there is a subtext about looking at the past with rose-tinted glasses, showing parallels between eccentric relatives and the bygone days of Britain. While Eddie perhaps sees their existence with the most clarity, it is Roberta who senses his troubled soul and can at times assauge his existential angst. If it's Eddie broad shoulders that the siblings existence precariously hangs and Roberta who serves as a perpetual reminder to Eddie of his humanity, it is Bob who is Roberta's emotional anchor, like an insect worker drone doing whatever needs doing to keep home and the cremation business 'above water'.

Under Matthew Parker's direction, Catherine's jet-black humour and absurdist premise never descends into farce – which is not the easiest thing to do – but retains the play's power to operate on different levels simultaneously. There were moments where I thought "I shouldn't be laughing hereat this!" but it's a credit to Parker's skill that even with the bleakest situations, he finds a way to connect the scenes with the audience.

As for the technical side of things, Laura Harling's set and Philip Matejtschuk sound design evoke the bittersweet nostalgia of yesteryear, with the pictures and dilapidated fixtures that harken to a lifetime ago and the seaside wurlitzers an aural shorthand for a bygone age.

Sea Life is different from anything else out at the moment – or usual fare in the mainstram or fringe theatre. Catherine has a distinctive voice and even though much of her time is spent with writing for film, TV and the radio, here's hoping that she returns to the stage more regularly to share her unique way of looking at things.

© Michael Davis 2016

Sea Life runs at the Hope Theatre until 11th June 2016.

*The Wonderful World of Dissocia written and directed by Anthony Neilson


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