The theatre-going wagon trundles on... tonight stopping outside the Theatre Royal Haymarket where Jonathan Kent's inaugural season as Artistic Director has now reached it's second production, Edward Bond's 1973 savage black comedy THE SEA.
I guess the season's remit was to stage productions that might not ordinarily get a chance on the West End stage. That's certainly the case with Bond. This is the first actual West End production of a play of his in a writing career that spans 46 years. I suspect it will be a while before we see another.
I was really looking forward to this as it stars two of my favourite actors Eileen Atkins and David Haig. Also in the cast is Marcia Warren - one of the best supporting actors we have.
It started promisingly enough with a turbulent crashing sea projected on a scrim and a drowning man seen behind it being shouted at by two others - effective but not very coherent.
The play takes place in 1907 in an unnamed East Anglian coastal town. Nearby an army barracks keeps up a practice barrage which rattles the nerves of the town but life continues in it's ordered manner as dictated by Mrs. Rafi (Atkins), a formidable widow of some wealth. Her niece's fiance has been drowned in the opening storm and it is soon revealed that he could have been saved but the town's draper - and part-time coastguard - Hatch (Haig) refused to save him as he believed this was the first sign of the forthcoming invasion he knows will happen from aliens from outer space - I guess he read a lot of HG Wells.
When she learns from the friend of the dead man that Hatch refused to help them she confronts him with this and also refuses to pay for the large velvet order she placed with him which has left him near bankrupt. The scene escalates as Hatch - torn between grovelling and fury - slowly loses the plot and ends with him maniacally cutting the bolts of material and cutting her with his shears. Eventually Hatch sinks into insanity, the scattering of the dead man's ashes ends farcically and the play ends with the vague promise of a new start for the niece and her dead fiance's friend.
There is a lot going on in the play and it's certainly brave to stage it but it seemed strangely - um.. - becalmed. I am not sure whether it can work in a theatre of this calibre. It just about worked at the National Theatre where Judi Dench and Ken Stott played the forces of "discipline and madness" but here an air of bafflement hung over the audience for a lot of the time who were eager to laugh at the Wildean excesses of Mrs Rafi and the Basil Fawltyesque rages of Hatch but the laughter petered out especially when Hatch is seen to be genuinely insane. It's an odd audience that would continue laughing when Hatch finding the washed-up body of the fiance starts to stab it again and again with his shears eventually cutting it's throat.
The half-empty house didn't help either. This is a worrying sign as the production is scheduled to run till April and it's only in it's second week. I think the main problem was Kent never found a rhythm for the play - the high comedy, philosophical ramblings and insanity in Sam Mendes' National Theatre production seemed to flow easier. Here the gears shift so wrenchingly that it's difficult to stay focused, there was also alarming longeurs - there is a scene at Mrs. Rafi's where they are rehearsing amateur theatricals which seemed to last for hours.
The joy of the production was Eileen Atkins. She stamped her authority on the production - every withering glance, every muttered put-down, her total stonewalling of those 'beneath her' made it fully believable that the town's people may mumble about her behind her back but crumble when faced with her cold stare. Then, just when you feel you have seen everything this broadly-drawn character can give, Bond gives her a final speech which pulls the rug from under your perceptions. In it she reveals how self-aware she really is, of her class, of her life and of her future. It was worth sitting through the confusing and confused proceeding scenes for this moment of pure acting gold.
David Haig was as usual wonderfully splenetic as Hatch, breaking down under the internal and external pressures on him but I have seen him now in three productions back-to-back which have seen him hurtling around the stage going into meltdown and as great as he is playing these roles it is developing into a shtick. Marcia Warren brought her fluffy daftness to the role as Rafi's companion but it was a performance that probably belonged to a different play. Russell Tovey again proved an actor to watch as the young villager who comes under the crazed wing of Hatch and David Burke was ok as the beachcomber, despised by the townfolk but - of course - is the one person who is sane enough to see into the future pre-figured by the booming guns. It's just a shame his final speech was so - wordy.
Ultimately I felt, like Dorothy Parker once said, there was less to this than meets the eye.