4 stars out of 5
Poetic, portentous and absorbingly atmospheric, this contemporary fable – directed by James MacDonald – is a languid meditation on grief, resilience, and the primal forces of creation and destruction. Through a sequence of disjointed, slow-moving scenes, playwright Cordelia Lynn methodically sketches out the passing days at an isolated cottage by the sea, where ageing academic Shirley lives with her partner and two of her three daughters. The third – Robin – is missing, though her presence hangs heavily over the family.
Lynn’s languidly written script is full of ambiguity and unresolved tensions between events real and imagined; between the past and the present; between the living and the dead. Fragmentary images are dredged up from coastal folklore: the cottage is surrounded by mermaids, ghosts, sirens and selkies, while the family themselves echo the archetypal maiden, mother and crone.
MacDonald’s well-judged staging leans into the story’s unsettling strangeness. An eerie, dreamlike quality pervades the production, which is tinged with charming moments of magical realism and dark humour but also a discomforting sense of something awful about to happen. At one point, the lobsters intended for dinner make a bid for freedom, scuttling across the kitchen floor while the family is distracted. At other times, characters disassociate from their conversations to visualise metaphorical acts of self-mutilation, driving sharp utensils into each other’s flesh before snapping back to reality.
Jack Knowles’ brilliantly impactful lighting design adds to the effect. The play opens under a numbing, diffuse grey glow that blenches the furniture scattered about the space like sun-bleached driftwood. Soon, though, heavy washes of ink-blue light begin to pass rhythmically over the space, synchronised with Max Pappenheim’s immersive soundscape, where a constant susurration of waves seems to dictate the shifting rhythms of each scene. When the seas outside are calm, there is near total stillness onstage, but a crashing thunderstorm triggers a burst of frenetic activity as the characters race outside to run, joyously in the rain.
Geraldine Alexander’s cooly intellectual Shirley drifts through her scenes with a serene sense of detachment, lost in metaphysical musings. Grace Saif conveys an opposing energy as youngest daughter Toni, a woman in her 20s, affecting childlike, performative naivety. Where Shirley remains cold, Toni feels everything with intensity and immediacy, laughing, crying and launching into flights of fancy.
Tom Mothersdale plays Mark, distraught partner to the vanished Robin, hiding his crushing insecurity behind a condescending facade, mansplaining and busying himself with chores to hold off his sense of powerlessness. Meanwhile, June Watson makes a striking impression in a small part as a mysterious, unnamed stranger who wanders into the cottage to deliver a captivating, mythic monologue that encapsulates the show’s otherworldly tone and bewitching power.