Review by Sam Waite
Relationships you have with others are like properties you might (in another economy, perhaps) own. That person is a fixture of your life, and you reap the benefits of their continued presence, but you must also fill in cracks and make repairs on the foundations lest they collapse. With that in mind, it makes sense that the characters in The Beach House, playing now at the Park Theatre, buy their titular new home just when threats to the relationship arise.
The Beach House follows Liv and Kate, a long-term couple with a baby on the way, who decide to move to the seaside, thinking it will be a good place to raise a child. Kate’s younger sister, dancer Jenny, begins the show by jetting off to Greece for a job as a circus performer before dropping in on the happy couple unannounced. Jenny and Liv’s first meeting sees sparks begin to ignite before Kate’s revelation of sisterhood quickly stamps them out, and the two are alone in the house while Jenny works her corporate job.
The slow-burning attraction between Jenny and Liv is central to the narrative, but Liv and Kate’s relationship has increasingly prevalent issues without a third party. Jo Harper’s script masterfully balances the growing emotional affair and the established couple growing apart – songwriter Liv’s failures to meet record label deadlines or keep promises about household chores are clear problems but not a continual topic of conversation. Harper’s trio of characters interact like real people, stepping carefully around issues while clearly anxious to make their main point.
Two Gemmas – Lawrence and Barnett – appear as would-be lovers Liv and Jenny respectively. Lawrence is charming in the play’s earlier moments, and does well at gradually peeling back her character’s layers to reveal a troubled young woman struggling to meet expectations. As Jenny, Barnett manages the delicate balancing act of portraying not just the more likeable, more approachable sister, but also the jealous one who wants what her older sibling has. She only interacts with one of the others at a time, and with her continued mannerisms and body language she almost creates two entirely different people, forming an evident divide between her real self and how she acts with her sister.
Kathryn Bond was a comedic highlight of Stratford East’s recent Cinderella, and proves to be a dramatic standout here. Her Kate is simultaneously fragile and commanding, the older, more stable partner and the more nurturing, less frivolous sister. Without the script or performance feeling the need to overstate the presence of postnatal depression, Bond’s careful, calculated work makes it clear that Kate is struggling from the earliest moments of her motherhood, and that these feelings of detachment and fear shape her interactions with both her lover and her sister.
Confident direction from Bethany Pitts has helped to shape these three deeply complimentary performances – Pitts makes effective use of the smaller Park 90 space, presenting the piece in the round and creating a sense of smallness that begins as cosy and becomes more an entrapment of the characters as the simple story progresses. Wisely, she hasn't demanded histrionics from her cast, handling the emotional peaks in a human, nuanced and realistic manner, with a subtlety of emotion and more measured reactions.
The simple but multi-faceted set and costumes have been designed by Cara Evans. Using only a small selection of furniture pierces – a wooden chest, two packing boxes, a large cushion-cum/chair, and a bucket – she creates the idea of a fully realised house without any bells and whistles obstructing the view. The bucket has an increasingly frequent drip of water landing in it from the ceiling, helping to cement the idea of the house falling apart in tandem with Liv and Kate’s relationship. Laura Howard’s lighting helps to support the feeling of smallness created by the raised platform of the stage – a large square of light hangs above the set, creating the sense of a glass enclosure in which the characters live their lives under our detached observation.
While not the raciest affair, the presence of Lou Kempton as intimacy director is appreciated, and the actors' comfort with what they're asked to perform and imply greatly aids their performances. Kempton’s careful presentation of the more intimate moments also pairs beautifully with the original compositions by Holly Khan, presumably representing the songs Liv is writing – or trying to – throughout their year by the sea.
Perhaps my only major gripe is that the music cues tend to be cut short, sometimes mid-lyric. Admittedly this keeps the scene transitions from becoming awkwardly long, but creates a different awkwardness in the music feeling unfinished. This may be a deliberate choice, as Liv does miss her writing deadlines, but it felt like a timing issue for me. Other music used is existing pop music, ranging from Janelle Monáe (a great if stereotypical shorthand to introduce Jenny’s queerness) to early Carole King (exactly what a folksy songwriter would be listening to) and is generally very effective.
Well-acted and presented without obstruction, The Beach House is a delicate, moving play which will likely find an audience and could easily transfer into a larger space with little, if anything, changed. Strongly written and anchored by the nuanced and fully-realised dynamics between the trio of players, this is a promising premiere of a piece I truly hope to see more from in the future.
The Beach House plays at The Park Theatre until March 11th
Tickets can be purchased here: https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/the-beach-house/about