“Not talking about it is not the same as coping with it”
In a land with as unreliable a climate as ours, it’s no wonder that there’s something unmistakably weird about English seaside towns outside the height of summer. Would-be sunbathers hunkered down on the beach behind windbreaks, families munching picnics in the car because its raining, hordes of sulky teenagers stalking amusement arcades with little amusement to be found besides the penny pusher, seagulls terrorising tourists with their chip-stealing ways – oh I DO like to be beside the seaside!
Lucy Catherine’s new play Sea Life pulls aside that veil of stick-of-rock-scented nostalgia though, to probe deeply into what life might be like for those who actually live in these coastal communities, whilst still investing her story with the kind of brilliantly mordant humour that recalls the likes of The League of Gentlemen. Three siblings are eking out an existence in the town where their family has lived for decades, a community that is seriously under threat from coastal erosion with even the cemetery now at the mercy of the crumbling cliffs.
The crisis actually presents an opportunity – older brother Eddie has turned gravedigger to exhume the coffins of those most at risk and his younger twin siblings Bob and Bob (Roberta) carry out makeshift funerals back at the family pub. But over 200 corpses later, Eddie is starting to crack, further isolated by the twins’ innate closeness, Roberta’s agoraphobia shows no signs of abating and though they’re nearly 30, Bob seems unable to cope without having his sister by his side at all times, to the point where they still share a bedroom.
Matthew Parker directs this ever-shifting swirl of darkly tragicomic strangeness ambitiously and adroitly. Scenes of actual jaw-dropping audacity rub shoulders with moments of raw grief, especially once we delve into the murky annals of their family history, Laura Harling’s design never letting us forget the infamous shadow of their grandfather. And Philip Matejtschuk’s sound design plays up the eeriness with its snatches of Wurlitzer organ spurting from a jukebox against the incessant lapping of the sea.
And it is powerfully acted. Jack Harding’s Eddie forcefully conveys the damage life has inflicted on him, including an ill-fated foray to art college in London; and Chris Levens and Vicky Gaskins play off each other nicely as the Bobs, their closeness increasingly suffocating as it is supportive. Catherine’s writing perhaps throws in a theme too many as the play progresses to its surreal climax, there’s little approaching resolution to the tangled complexity of the lives here, corned beef sandwiches and all, but sometimes that’s just (sea) life.