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Review: Sorry We Didn't Die at Sea (Park Theatre)

Review by Sam Waite


Without proper precautions and a safe vessel, travelling the oceans can be dangerous – hell, even with them it can still be lethal. Still, for as long as we've known there were other lands across the sea, humans have found ways to reach them, even when the laws of the land forbid them. In Sorry We Didn't Die at Sea, Italian playwright Emanuele Aldrovandi explores why certain people may opt for such a risky journey, and what kind of people may find themselves shut in together while making the trip.

Translated by Marco Young for its UK debut last year, Die at Sea now opens in the Park Theatre’s intimate Park 90 space. Three strangers are paying $2000 (half now and half on arrival) to a shady sailor for the opportunity to hide in his storage container as he sails from a European shore to a mystery destination. Europe as we know it has collapsed, and the economic catastrophe and tightly closed borders necessitate our anonymous crew’s choose of vessel. Their saviour, for lack of a better word, is equally as vague about his identity and makes his interest in them only for their money clear from the first moment.

Dreary and horrific though the circumstances may be, they don't cast a shadow over the entire 90 minutes. Billed as absurdist and darkly comedic, Die at Sea finds the laughs in the bleakness, and Aldrovandi’s flawed, often disagreeable characters carry their fair share of this weight. Crucially, for a play first performed in Italian, Young’s translation feels neither like the work of two different voices, nor as one writer dutifully putting across the literal wordings of the other – their work is in tandem, but never shows signs of being written in two different tongues. Aldrovandi has created a startling blend of hard-hitting reality and dark, cutting humour, which Young has beautifully interpreted for an English-speaking audience.

For moments where the ship’s captain (Felix Garcia Guyer) takes up a microphone to give pointed, metaphorical explanations of, among other things, the makeup and size of an ISO container, director Daniel Emery brings the curtains back to the forefront. Pacing around the exterior of the container, Guyer’s character explains the setting in of loneliness and his pursuit of knowledge online to stave off its consequences (perhaps unsuccessfully) and it quickly becomes apparent that we the patrons of the Park are being used as the literalisation of the fantasised audience he relays these learnings to in order to cling to his failing stability. This is the key example of Emery’s understanding of Aldrovandi’s storytelling – it’s pitched to potential buyers as absurdist, and these moments certainly provide a touch of menacing absurdity.

A simple set design proves to have a great deal of impact when the action begins. Alys Whitehead’s scuffed wooden floor and scarlet curtain, facing the audience on all three sides and retractable as needed, suggest the small number of locations without the need for a more expansive design. The curtain becomes both internal and external surfaces of the shipping container the travellers are stowed away in, and the wooden floor is easy to believe as a dock. Catja Hamilton’s lighting, particularly the strips of light coming from below the front row of the audience, help to set the tone and yatmosphere of scenes, helping the audience to understand when it’s time to stop laughing and to start fearing for the group’s safety and sanity.

Acting as creative associate and as sound designer, Jamie Lu becomes essential to the quick immersion this play requires. From the gentle waves of the opening, dock-side sequence, to the ominous music separating Guyer’s speeches into a world of deranged fantasy, the continued background noise is what, more than anything else, keeps the scenes and locations clear and easy to follow. Thanks to Hamilton’s lighting, I was immersed in the atmosphere and energy of the piece, but Lu is what helped to ground my understanding of the world and the genuine peril the character’s faced.

Guyer, whose character is billed as The Burly One, does solid work in the role – Burly is never one-dimensional enough to be pure evil, but nor is he willing enough to expose his inner workings to allow his stowaways a richer exploration of his personality. Admittedly, an argument could be made that this character trait – unwillingness to open up – means that the character becomes one-dimensional in the shared scenes, but for me the balance worked nicely. Similarly threatening and mysterious energy comes from translator Young as The Stocky One. Stocky is often an open book, although whether the stories within are the truth or a series of randomly constructed lies is anyone’s guess. Clearly feigning casualness at times and brimming with an anxious, almost angry energy, Young’s performance is bold without overwhelming the simplicity of the staging.

Will Bishop and Yasmine Haller complete the ensemble as The Tall One and The Beautiful One. With a good deal of the comedy coming from Tall’s reactions to a harsh situation that his obvious privilege hasn’t prepared him for, and for the others’ exasperation at these responses, Bishop does exceptionally well with the most openly anxious of the group. His nerves are increasingly frayed, he has no street smarts, and he is far too gullible for this kind of voyage, but Bishop lends the foolish middle-classer believability. Haller, as Beautiful, is deliberately closed off and putting on the amount of gruffness and bravado needed to survive, and Haller’s ability to slide in and out of a gentler, more subdued presentation lends itself well to the role.

A combination of sharp satire and absurdist comedy whose funnier moments I cannot do justice without spoiling the plot beats themselves, Sorry We Didn’t Die at Sea won’t be to everyone’s taste. The speeches from Burly could come across as too disconnected; some of the characters’ motivations may rub audience’s the wrong way; heck, some people may just not like watching something so close to reality when searching for escapism. Still, this is a well-produced, fascinatingly staged production of a work by an acclaimed talent whose work is almost entirely new to London audiences. It’s an acquired taste of a show, but one I’d happily sample again.

Photos by Charles Flint

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