Theatre Critic and Journalist

Thoughts on London, Brighton Dome

Thoughts on London, Brighton Dome

Simon Stephens wrote Sea Wall and T5 independently of one another: the first for the Bush’s Broken Space season in 2008, the second had been premiered by DryWrite a few months earlier. Paines Plough aren’t the first to bring them together – the monologues have been similarly twinned in Germany, Greece and Spain – but doing so proves a revealing exercise, albeit more instructive about the playwright than the world.

First off, it’s fascinating to return to Sea Wall in the light of Stephens’s recent work and, in particular, it’s lack of optimism. Ian Shuttleworth was, I believe, the first to put down this thought in his Financial Times review of Wastwater (2011): “I have long been fond of playwright Simon Stephens’ skill in creating unremittingly bleak portraits of ordinary people and then right at the end offering a glimmer of hope…Wastwater has given me a new experience: the bleakness without the hope.” Trace that through to Morning (2012) and the “glimmer of hope” has been daubed over and blacked out in a final ‘fuck everything’ monologue.

In hindsight, all the clues were there in Sea Wall. Here is a piece about a father losing his eight-year old daughter, his only child, Lucy. The family is on holiday in the South of France, at his father-in-law’s villa, when Lucy falls off a rock and cracks her head. The speaker, Alex, is swimming out at sea and watches the whole thing in an almost dissociative state. By the time he makes it back to shore, it’s too late.

The key image, as the title suggests is the sea wall itself: that sudden, steep drop where sea-bed plummets into the abyss. This is Alex’s own sea wall. Life, so brightly coloured beforehand, clouds over like a cataract. His emotions dry up and turn to stone. “You see people when they say to you that they can’t imagine not believing in anything,” he says, “because it would be just too depressing. I think there’s something sick about that. The level of cowardice in that is just unbearable to me.”

Having first come across T5 tucked at the back of my Wastwater text, it’s a surprise to see that it was written before Sea Wall. It has the hollow bilious tone that defines Stephens’s later work, that same hacking revulsion and viscous regret. In it, a woman in her thirties recounts a tube journey to Heathrow airport and catches the itchy paranoia and jaded anomie of urban life.

Planes and tubes, the instruments of terrorism and scourge of environmentalists, the harbingers of doom, are either explicitly central or underlying and it’s telling that both plays were written in the wake of Pornography, which premiered in Edinburgh, just between the two. (There’s a note to be made about a playwright’s bibliography; that the plays don’t necessarily arrive on stage in the order that they were written. Intriguing too that Stephens’s Curious Incident… adaptation was also written in 2008, a hangover perhaps from his meeting Haddon in 2006.)

The two are also linked by the notion of escape. They show London through the desire to get away from it. Not for nothing are they shot through with different colour schemes: T5 is a colourless text that, in Hannah Clark’s design, becomes fifty shades of beige, while Sea Wall seems as bright as holiday snaps; light and photography being running motifs. The only time it mentions colour is on Alex’s return to London (“the dirt and the colour and the roar of it”) and the implication is of its greyness: looming, oppressive and monotonous.

Director George Perrin gives us T5 first, with a production that owes a definite debt to the extreme naturalism strand of Katie Mitchell’s work. Perrin adds a definite location – a blank chain hotel room on the edge of Heathrow – and plays most of the text through headphones, so that it seems like an internal monologue. What this achieves, crisply, is to really draw out the atomization and felt voyeurism that Stephens hankers after. Here we sit, cocooned in our own headspace like so many commuters, silently watching and judging. It also gives a sense of information overload, of a fragmented world that’s impossible to take in all together. Focus on the words and the action goes fuzzy; focus on the action and the words disappear. Every now and then a plane roars past the window.

The trouble is that this form doesn’t quite fit Stephens’s text. Primarily because the monologue is definitely communication rather than thought process. It’s too selective, too conscious to pass for memory. In short, we – or at least, I – don’t think like this. It feels somehow detached from the action – Abby Ford potters and frets about the hotel room – almost like a voiceover in film, almost like captions beneath an image or surtitles. There’s also the tonal quality: headphones have a tendency to both flatten and soften a text. The matter of factness and humour of Stephens’s words is replaced with a soothing, meditative quality. At best, it’s numb. At worst, it’s like having camomille tea siphoned down your aural canal. T5 isn’t that. It’s a coiled, suppressed scream. It’s a cold sweat. It’s hyperventilation. Dissociation.

There’s a moment in Sea Wall that might explain all this: Cary Crankson wells up. Despite saying outright “I have a complete and total inability to cry” – and emotional numbness being at the play’s core – he stands there and grows teary. It smacks of a lack of attention and that’s a shame. Up until that point he’s found just the right tone of effortful warmth to handle the story’s arc and its casual quality. Nonetheless, the swelling heartwrench of Stephens’s play still comes across in droves, even if it would be better served by an emotionless void.

Photograph: Elyse Marks

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