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Sea Creatures by Cordelia Lynn at Hampstead Theatre

James Macdonald’s production of Cordelia Lynn’s new play is wildly atmospheric and intriguing. Lynn, as a librettist, has a strong sense of rhythm and, perhaps because she’s also a dramaturg, an equally strong sense of theatricality – both of which are on full display in Sea Creatures. As the action opens on Zoe Hurwitz’s kitchen set, there is a wonderful feeling of mystery and dislocation – which turns out, at first, to be little more than a family’s sleepy morning routine but Macdonald builds a world fast and a mood deftly. With a dynamic sea score from sound designer Max Pappenheim, the crashing waves were a presence in their own right and reminded me of Eugene O’Neil’s foghorns in Long Day’s Journey Into Night but the staccato domesticity of dialogue evoked Nora Ephron – although Lynn’s construct heartily nods to Chekov (there are, after all, three sisters isolated in a summer house – it’s just that one of them, Robin, isn’t there).

Pearl Chanda in Sea Creatures. Credit Marc Brenner.
Pearl Chanda in Sea Creatures. Credit Marc Brenner.

Unafraid of legend, Lynn’s script leans into fables of the sea and eerie archetypes with powerful poetry. When doctoral student Mark (Tom Mothersdale) arrives at the home of acclaimed academic Shirley (Geraldine Alexander) and artist Sarah (Thusitha Jayasundera) the balance of the all-female family – including Sarah’s daughters: a heavily pregnant and chain-smoking George (Pearl Chanda) and her younger sister Toni (Grace Saif) – is thrown off. He is looking for his lover Robin and validation of his PhD thesis from the foremost expert in his field, Sarah.

Fred the Fisherman (Tony Turner) turns up and spins a yarn in exchange for a seashell (as is custom in this household). A ghostly old woman (June Watson) arrives and speaks a frightening tale. We see the myths and truths told in the family’s stories to each other and outsiders as the warp and weft of the fabric that binds them.

Is this play fundamentally a mystery about a lover who didn’t turn up for the summer? Is it about sticking around when you no longer recognise the person next to you? Is it about the ungilded side of motherhood? Is it about time or thyme (as much of the show-off cooking banter alludes)? Or is it about something altogether more otherworldly? Yes. I found Sea Creatures wonderfully ambiguous and thought-provoking and not tied up with a tidy bow. There is enough language to anchor it cerebrally but a sort of salty and ethereal quality that is transporting – with comic punctuation that pricks pretentiousness.

Whilst an incredibly well-acted show with outstanding production values, there were a few technical elements that might be improved. Ambitious in its staging for Downstairs at the Hampstead, expectations were set high by the impressive set design and precise visual imagery. However, we are still in a small studio space and aspects of this play call out for bigger (likely unaffordable) scale with, possibly, projections and different special effects for some of its more surreal or quirky aspects. There is a scene in which birds crash into the glass door that is described powerfully in the script but can only be told through sound in the studio theatre. The play has a running theme about lobsters which is both very funny and curious but sight-lines of the space restrict appreciating it fully. The fact, however, that I would like to see this play again but given more budget on a bigger stage is surely a sign of its promise. Sea Creatures is hypnotic, funny and thought-provoking – an exciting new play.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

In a cottage by the sea, four women live in a house made for five. Meals are prepared, stories are shared and the tide breaks on the shore… When only one of their two guests arrives for the summer, it isn’t quite the reunion they were all hoping for…

HAMPSTEAD DOWNSTAIRS / CELIA ATKIN PRESENT
SEA CREATURES
BY CORDELIA LYNN
DIRECTED BY JAMES MACDONALD
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes, with no interval
https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

Author

  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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