Old Red Lion, London – until 22 April 2017
This substantial début play by Tallulah Brown hits an intriguing syncope with David Goodhart’s much-discussed definition of the UK tribes. Not left and right, not even just Brexit and Remain: “Anywheres” and “Somewheres”. The first are confident, mobile, probably graduates: their identity is rooted in their own achievements and portable abilities.
The Somewheres, in contrast, draw their psychological strength and happiness from belonging to a community, a place, sometimes a trade (“I am a Durham miner. I am Yorkshire / Suffolk / East End” etc). Deracination or an overwhelming influx is a problem to them more than to Anywheres, who just float away and choose a home that suits. We all have elements of each, but there is a real clash.
In this play, two girls on an East Coast shore are childhood friends. Now (in a rather overlong first half) they are school-leavers having all-night beach raves, necking absinthe and sniggering about sex in the manner of girls thee years younger: their territory a half-submerged WW2 pillbox on the shingle, on which they have scrawled memories of childhood and teens. Ruby’s mother is long gone, her piratical father Jim complicit in her drug-dealing. Exams and the outer world mean nothing to her, as her passion is for home , the beach and fun in the moment. Whereas Lucy is an embryonic Anywhere, off to “uni”. Her middle-class mother Pam (here’s an invisible commuter Dad) is exasperatedly helping Jim in his protest against the Environment Agency’s decision to let that bit of beach go, and his clifftop house with it.
A summers-end rave ends in a boy overdosing, eating pebbles and ending in a coma (this has happened: I too live along that coast). At the same time Jim’s protest fails. The second act shows the girls’ social estrangement and Ruby’s obsessive – and guilty – use of her earnings to organize truckloads of spoil and rubble, Canute-like, for a private battle with erosion. That has happened too, at one famous point along our Suffolk coast.
“Loving where you live with every bone in your body has got to count for something” cries Ruby, aggressively furious at the public meeting. There is some lovely writing here, romantic about the bleak North Sea and its phosphorescent or stormy moods. Jim – who may owe a bit to Rooster Byron in Jerusalem – punctuates scenes with Shallow Brown, Lowlands Away and other sea songs in a properly thrilling folk voice (Philippe Spall is immensely watchable, and nicely subtle in his later un-Rooster capitulation to reality). He is terrific, but the necessary engine of the play is the troubled, determined Ruby (Lucy Carless).
It is a professional debut, and taken a bit too fast and garbled at first in the naturalistic teenage chatter. The author would also have done her a favour by making her less obnoxious in her sexual bragging, contempt for her friend’s ambition and shrugging at the overdosed boy. But Carless certainly scores a startling theatrical first when she hurls a tampon from under her PVC kilt to go skinny-dipping, and there is real, solid tragic feeling in the second act as she labours with her barricade and her conscience.
As Lucy Georgia Kerry is a good contrast, torn between maturity and a desire to be as sexily cool as Ruby; Karen Brooks is Pam, every fed-up commuter wife, having a credible salty exasperated friendship with Jim. Who knows really, that you can’t ever stop the sea and that great sections of our coast will vanish without it being anyone’s fault (he haltingly brings up an old Devon case, Hallsands, caused by a shipyard development but geologically completely different). It is Ruby, the passionate damaged child, who can accept neither erosion nor adulthood. That’s what you leave remembering.