Very near the end of Edward Bond’s The Sea, two of the play’s central characters bestow sage advice to a relative newcomer and his would-be lover, encouraging both not fall victim to their fate, but instead escape the confines of the seaside village to change the world. It is an oddly simplistic and disappointing conclusion to the preceding two hours filled with a stylistically mixed bag of eccentricity, and its potential for social commentary that becomes obscured under the weight of time (it was written in 1973) and history (it takes place in 1907).
Set on the shores of England’s North Sea in East Anglia, The Sea begins with the drowning of a young sailor who just happens to be betrothed to the niece of the village matriarch, Mrs. Rafi. Called upon to provide assistance in rescuing the young man is the town draper, Hatch. Despite being paid by the town to patrol the shoreline as a member of the coast guard, he refuses with the belief that both the sailors and the storm are part of an alien invasion.
As Hatch spirals out-of-control in his alien theories, he also finds himself up against the formidable Mrs. Rafi, whose entitlement of riches has manifested into a power over him and the rest of the townsfolk.
With a milieu of absurdity, Bond’s central ideas around class, power and social groups do occasionally rise to the surface, but like some of its other themes of otherness, xenophobia, and even the futility of life under the ever-present fear of death, they all become washed away beneath a literary sea of peculiarities.
It doesn’t help either that we are unable to connect emotionally with any of Bond’s characters. Hatch’s descent into madness is sporadically told, and even the unlovable Mrs. Rafi is more biddy than real-life menace.
In fact caricature is another of The Sea’s washes. With both playwright and director Tamara McCarthy taking broad strokes in some scenes you half expect the Monty Python gang to make an appearance. And while indeed The Sea is something completely different, it simply cannot sustain us.
While Bond’s play capsizes rather than captivates though, there are some strong performances in this Slamming Door Collective production.
Leading the way is Genevieve Fleming as Mrs. Rafi. So unrecognizable was she in fact my theatre partner was astonished when he found it was her. And even as she waded too deep into parody at times, it was an astonishing transformation.
As the conspiracy theorist Hatch, Elizabeth Kirkland finds a good range, and Stephen Aberle provides the necessary reality in his portrayal of the town recluse, which could easily have become another caricature.
With very few small measures, the trio of Raes Calvert, Cheyenne Mabberley, and Mason Temple provide comic relief, and Melissa Oei is a delightful foil to Fleming’s Mrs. Rafi, even with a single expression. There is fine support as well from Dylan Floyde, Michelle Morris, and Jessica Hood.
Set designer Sandy Margaret’s central wooden pier and backdrop is effective, and small embellishments on the Edwardian costumes from Cheyenne Mabberley and Chantal Short are clever touches.
Sound designer Matthew MacDonald-Bain provides some embellishments of his own from the opening storm, to the constant tinkle of Hatch’s shop door. He even provides a full-on gale during the outlandish funeral scene. It is all nicely lit by Celeste English.
Ultimately though, performance and design are not enough of a lifebuoy to save The Sea. Like the unfortunate Colin, who only makes an appearance washed up on shore, the audience ends up drowning in its excess.
The Sea by Edward Bond. Directed by Tamara McCarthy. A Slamming Door Collective production on stage at the Jericho Arts Centre (1675 Discovery St, Vancouver) until May 19. Visit theatrewire.com for tickets and information.