If you look back there seems to be a halcyon period between the end of the Second World War and the hedonistic time of the 1960s when the British hadn’t realised that the days of empire were over and they were no longer the force to be reckoned with that they once were. This is especially true amongst the middle classes who tried to turn back the clock and take the country back to how it was pre-1939. A fine example of this mentality is on now at the Southwark Playhouse where N C Hunter’s play A Day By The Sea has returned to London after over 50 years absence.
In a delightful seaside house Laura Anson (Susan Tracy) is holding court. She currently has a full house with not only the normal resident’s brother-in-law David (David Whitworth) and Doctor Farley (David Acton) – the live-in medico but also divorcee Frances (Alix Dunmore). Frances has returned to the property after an absence of over 20 years and has brought her family – daughter Elinor (Tatum Smith-Sperling/Beatrix Taylor) and son Toby (Jack Swift/George Taylor) – along with their governess Miss Mathieson (Stephanie Williams). Also visiting Laura is her son – a diplomat on leave from his posting in Paris – Julian (John Sackville) who is currently in discussion with local solicitor William Gregson (David Gooderson). Laura is worried that Julian is too career focussed and doesn’t have time to think about anything else. Frances is trying to get over her divorce and hoping to rekindle her friendship with Julian and Miss Mathieson is attempting to maintain a stiff upper lip whilst also hiding her love for a member of the household. Into this powder keg of mixed emotions and hidden feelings comes Foreign Office official Humphrey Caldwell (Hugh Sachs) with his own pile of dynamite to add to the mix.
Now, I have to admit to having mixed feelings about A Day by the Sea. Firstly the writing. I have read that NC Hunter has been spoken of as the English Chekov but the writing is very much of its time and, for me, it really didn’t work. I found the story rather dull, taking nearly three hours to get virtually nowhere. This really was an example of why use 10 words when a 100 would do and I had real difficulty in identifying or even really caring about any of the characters.
Having said that, the production itself is first-rate. All of the actors sparkle, and Susan Tracy and John Sackville really do shine in their roles as Laura and Julian respectively. Susan’s Laura is a very traditional matriarch riding roughshod over everything and ruling the roost with a rod of iron – when she says you are going on a picnic, then get the deckchair and tablecloth out because you definitely will be going. At the same time, Laura is totally oblivious to everyone else’s feelings and misses – either actually or in that delightful British way of ‘overlooking’ – many things that are going on around her. Julian is as different from his mother as it’s possible to be. Whilst she is the perfect hostess, Julian is the totally focussed diplomat with an upper lip that is not so much stiff as starched, never to move. He is one of those that when they set their mind to something, really focus on it until it is done. John, played him beautifully, with a clipped accent and short sentences, speaking a lot but saying little in the style of the day.
Director Tricia Thorns, along with Set Designer Alex Marker and Costume Designer Emily Stuart, have put together a production that creates a perfect 1950’s locale and populates it with real people who look perfect and sound just right for the era.
To sum up, A Day by the Sea has me in a quandary. I really liked the acting, staging and overall feel of the production but found the story itself dated and not really something that resonated with me.
Review by Terry Eastham
It is a fine day in May, 1953.
A work-obsessed diplomat based in Paris makes a rare visit to his mother, who lives at the beautiful family home in Dorset. He is disconcerted to find an old childhood friend also visiting with her children, her life now blighted by scandal. His mother, heartily sceptical about politicians meddling in foreign affairs, would like him to calm down and get married. A family picnic on the beach might be just the thing but even there a work colleague brings him news he had not expected to hear.
Do we always see the past through rose-tinted spectacles? If, after years dominated by his work, he can discover what really matters in life, can he get it? Can we? A Day by the Sea, hugely popular in its time, asks this very question.
Two’s Company and Karl Sydow, in association with Master Media Ltd, present
A Day by the Sea
by N C Hunter
4 – 28 OCT 2017
Start Time 7.30pm
Matinee Starts 3pm
Running Time 165 mins including interval