Hampstead Theatre, London – until 29 April 2023
I’ll give it one thing: over an hour into this infuriating two-hour play there’s a brief but wonderful part for the veteran June Watson. She stumps in with octogenarian determination from the moody seascape window at the back (the lighting is one of the heroic achievements of the show, dusking and dawning at short unpredictable intervals). Roaming round the middle-class holiday cottage kitchen island, she delivers in aggravated tones an account of how she is a seal – the mysterious silkie-woman of northern legend. She came ashore years ago wooed by a man, but when she shed her seal skin for lovemaking the bastard hid it, thus keeping her doomed to be his slave and forever tolerate exile ashore “cooking cleaning washing fucking carrying bearing…” and never getting back to the sea.
It’s a fine speech, lyrical and vigorous, a bit Dylan Thomas, and beautifully rendered. If we hadn’t all been numbed by the preceding 70 minutes, we might have given Watson an exit round and a rousing cheer.
Her listener, the young man Mark, is no help looking for the skin, though throughout the preceding impressionistic and irritatingly magical-realist script he has been the most grounded of the personae, doing the cooking. He even, at one point, observes that Sarah, partner of the elusive matriarch Shirley, ought not to encourage the pregnant young Georgia to chain-smoke and drink so much. The younger sister Toni – supposedly 22 – lives full time in pyjamas and is given any number of gnomic remarks and unlikely reactions. Honour to Grace Saif for making the wretched kid almost convincing. They all do a bit of this witchy-fey uttering, the coy femaleness of it at times enraging. “When the menopause came she could only paint lobsters.”. Or “sometimes I burn countries”.
All of them keep coming back to an absent character, Robin. Maybe drowned and gnawed by lobsters; maybe she’s a mental patient. Maybe her soul was stolen one day by a scream and borne away on a paper boat. Maybe she’s likely to come back any minute; though turned into dust. OK, OK, maybe it is all a meditation on grief. Possibly the useless Toni really has learning disabilities, and old Shirley has dementia – which would explain the invisible seals she sees which were actually years ago in Ireland.
Though hang on, she is reading Mark’s PhD for him. So maybe not all that demented. Oh, and there’s a fisherman, saying stuff like “there’s a storm coming”. As fisherman do. In plays.
We are not meant to be sure of anything, but the author is no Florin Zeller. What we do know is that this infuriating, self-consciously poetic piece was written by Cordelia Lynn during a four week writers’ “residency” in America. And that it is immaculately acted and presented, with all the skill of this downstairs space which has seen so much really good stuff in the past year. It feels a waste of it, and of Hampstead’s brave mission to find new writing.
Box office hampsteadteatre.com. To 29 april