Review by Harry Bower
A new ensemble play about grief, loss and family dynamics has opened at Hampstead Theatre’s Downstairs space. Sea Creatures is its name, written by Cordelia Lynn, and the seaside is its home. It is set within the bounds of a cottage overlooking the beach, occupied by a family of four women awaiting the arrival of two guests for the summer. With subtlety abound and a delicately intricate plot at its core, Sea Creatures celebrates mythology of the sea and uses it as a vehicle to explore the power of storytelling. It is lathered in metaphor has ample poetic monologues to captivate its audience.
It's summer, and four women are in their holiday home by the sea, spending their time cooking, swimming, playing games, escaping their lives in the city. Anticipation lingers in the air: two guests are enroute. Shirley, a professor and her partner Sarah, an artist, are in their fifties and mother three daughters. Georgina, who goes by George, is both pregnant and regretful, drinking and smoking her way through the summer with a fantastically bitter and sarcastic take on life. Antonia, referred to by her nickname, Toni, is twenty-two and has a naïve outlook thanks to her protected upbringing, offering up childlike yet on-the-nose observations on the world (“why do people want flat clothes?” she asks, of ironing). Robin is the third sister but absent and due to arrive imminently with her partner, Mark. The pair have a rocky relationship and Robin a talent for going missing – where to is never fully explained.
The women are joined by Mark pining after Robin who has once again abandoned him, and it becomes clear that he is a guest disrupting the natural order. The normalisation of family quirks is a big theme in this play. It’s relatable. Specifics about who cooks and when, Shirley’s screaming-nightmares, George’s anger toward her pregnancy, Robin’s mental health challenges and Toni’s bordering-creepy behaviour – all this appears abnormal to Mark, who acts as the audience’s sounding board - the outsider. There’s a commentary to be observed about family ritual and judgement, about how everyone deals with loss in their own way. Specifically, loss of a relationship when a person is still alive, something we all come face to face with at some point. It’s not quite a literal ghost story though it does have that feel to it, Robin’s absence drives the narrative.
After a slow start the family interactions are engaging, as layers are revealed, relationships are formed, and mysterious threads unravel. There are points at which the narrative deviates dramatically from the expected route, throwing mythology and metaphor in at a rate of knots, sometimes making it hard to keep up and re-establish reality. The writing brings its characters to the point of quiet introspection, but against the backdrop of the abstract sea creatures, mythical tales, and random skin-obsessed old women, this can often become a distraction rather than an effective vehicle. To be clear, a lot of the metaphor does work on a subtext level, prompting audience questions and interpretations of the plot in an effective and challenging way.
The intimate space is made more intimate still by the engulfing lighting design. It is truly impressive work by Jack Knowles which fully immerses the audience in this seaside world, complimented wonderfully by Max Pappenheim’s sound design. This reviewer having grown up by the sea, I found it remarkable how realistic the soundscape was, the crashing of the waves on the rocks changing to suit dozens of moods.
Relationships are what matter in Sea Creatures, and there are some corkers. Sarah (Thusitha Jayasundera) and Toni (Grace Saif) play out a gorgeous step mother-daughter relationship which is particularly touching, an unspoken understanding permeates whatever surface level drama is happening. Pearl Chanda plays George with a stubborn defiance and seemingly cold-natured personality which is so clearly begging to be broken down and loved by those around her. Geraldine Alexander’s Shirley is both stoic and vulnerable – you can see where George’s coldness comes from – and yet you never doubt for a second her love for her family unit, despite being on the edge of an implied disease. Tom Mothersdale plays Mark, the angry, direct and somehow endearing lone ranger living with depression and the realisation he may never see his partner again. This performance is the most impactful because Mark is the character who changes most throughout the piece. Mothersdale does a fine job of reflecting that change in subtle ways and has exceptional comic timing at his disposal.
If based solely on performances, this play would be five stars. It struggles though with some inventive but not altogether successful storytelling mechanics. Imagination is represented in replayed interactions which jolt the audience out of the scene and confuse the narrative. I have pondered the imagination scenes as a metaphor themselves for stages of grief or depression, but these links for me are too elusive to pin down with certainty. It is possible and perhaps even likely I lack the required imagination to thrive in this quietly surreal world, certainly others would be more effusive than I about the play’s storytelling successes.
Although not perfect there is a lot to like here. Sea Creatures is head-spinning in many ways and had me thinking about it for hours thereafter, debating hidden meanings. If its main crime is of being too subtle, then its character relationships and sharp wit certainly go a long way to making up for it. Most of its writing is clever verging on poetic, and always laced with gentle humour. For those who feel an affinity to British seaside and mythology it is two hours of bliss. In the play we are told that the sea always has her price. In the case of Sea Creatures that price is worth paying.
Sea Creatures plays in Hampstead Theatre’s Downstairs space until 29 April 2023. For more information and tickets visit: https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2023/sea-creatures/
Photos by Marc Brenner