views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Sea Life
The Hope Theatre
26th May 2016


Vicky Gaskin, Jack Harding and Chris Levens as Roberta, Eddie and Bob

Photography © Laura Harling

Running a small business is always difficult, especially when all your regulars are dead. Not to worry, there are always ways to dig up custom... A uniquely British sense of black humour flows through Sea Life, in which a one-time flourishing bar (complete with obligatory jar of pickled eggs and checked tablecloth) is turned into a makeshift crematorium. With their coastal town crumbling around them, twins Roberta (Vicky Gaskin) and Bob (Chris Levens) conduct services for former neighbours and friends, as dug up by their brother Eddie (Jack Harding). Right you are, then.

It would be easy to drown in the sheer madness of Lucy Catherine's complex and bizarre plot. However, as well as entertaining us with the madcap antics of its three protagonists, director Matthew Parker ably draws out Catherine's more poignant themes of grief and identity, making this play more than just a typical comedy. There's a real bleakness at its core and some really universal ideas. What passes for normal in this town is frankly lunacy, but being unable to cope with loss, feeling left behind, needing someone - there's actually so much at the heart of this tale that everyone can identify with.

Although the twins seemingly share everything, Roberta's plaintive and repeated insistence at being called by her full name hints at the cracks that are to develop. Furthermore, in a misguided attempt to carve out her own identity, she's wearing her dead mother's clothing. It looks dated, shapeless and plain odd on her, making her visually a figure of fun, but there's so much hidden depth to her character that we feel horrible for ever laughing at her. She may come across as utterly crazy at many points, however she's also the glue holding this fragmented family together and that's a huge burden for someone with her own very personal problems.

Vicky Gaskin and Chris Levens as Roberta and Bob

Photography © Laura Harling

Whilst older, angrier sibling Eddie (Jack Harding) towers over the other two, underneath all the growling lies a broken man. Having tried and failed to make it elsewhere, he's trapped in the town of his youth, sidelined and isolated. Despite his many throwaway lines laced with morbid humour and his big burly stature, he's possibly the most damaged. In the most tragic of scenes with the three characters at breaking point, we find ourselves chuckling at Eddie's black humour and then our consciences drag us back into the reality of what is unfolding in front of us, which is a family in crisis.

In the background of Laura Harling's beautifully detailed set proudly hangs a family portrait of the siblings' grandfather, a man in a Victorian bathing suit with sandwiches strapped to his head. It tacitly implies that whatever happens, stranger things have gone before in the town. With bizarre things happening with increasing frequency, we find ourselves glancing at the painting, imagining how the man in it would have simply taken this all in his stride. The vivid blues and greens and wooden flooring create a shabby chic seaside feel, which is so evocative that you can almost imagine the smell of the sea. (Be grateful though you can't actually get a whiff of the coffins.)

Parker varies the tone of the piece constantly, with Sea Life taking a more absurdist turn in the second half. The shift between a sort of real life and anything goes is delineated after the interval by a highly stylised scene in which lighting designer Tom Kitney, sound designer Philip Matejschuk and choreographer Elissa Aravidou create an almost nightmarish funfair gone wrong moment from which we can't tear our eyes away. It's just brilliantly bonkers and a particularly powerful example of the combined talent of all the cast and creatives in this production.

The expectations of Parker's previous in-house hit Lovesong of the Electric Bear loom over him and whilst this doesn't quite hit the same ridiculously high bar, Sea Life is nonetheless a gloriously quirky and stylish explosion of ideas and emotions. You'll laugh until your sides hurt, you'll hate yourself for it, and then you'll laugh some more. Oh, you will like to be beside this seaside. Sea Life is a deliciously dark home grown black comedy.

Sea Life ran from 24th May to 11th June 2016 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)

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