Sun & Sea
The Albany, Deptford, London
A sandy beach on a sunny day. It’s a sight familiar to many of us — so evocative and so yearned for during winter months. And the first thing that strikes you about Sun & Sea, the intensely beautiful Lithuanian opera-drama-installation by Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, now playing as part of the London International Festival of Theatre, is its intricately detailed accuracy.
The entire playing space of The Albany in south London is covered in sand; the audience, circling the action in the upstairs gallery, peer down like seagulls at the human beings strewn on beach towels. There’s an elderly couple hunting for reading glasses, a small child building sandcastles, two teenagers attempting to play badminton, a wealthy couple with upmarket sunloungers, a guy with a man-bun doing handstands to show off to his girlfriend.
People chat, doze, play cards, pretend to read, saunter across the beach in search of snacks. Barzdžiukaitė’s staging moves and shifts with that sleepy languor that descends on a beach, when simply putting your shoes on to go for ice-cream feels like a Herculean task.
It’s all so recognisable, so innocent — so reminiscent of childhood holidays. And yet. There’s something unutterably sad about this scene. You start to notice telling details: the nature magazine, the copy of Dune, the toy dinosaurs. Meanwhile the songs seem to seep out of the reclining sunbathers. Lapelytė’s electronic score is simple but haunting; Grainytė’s lyrics tell us of bad dreams, of a spouse who drowned, of overwork and the inability to switch off, of litter on the beach, of unseasonably warm winters, of the journey of a banana, of bleached coral.
And swelling up around those solos are choral numbers, gorgeous, dreamy and meditative, about the changing nature of the sky and the sea. They come in waves, washing over the spectators like surf, filling the space with harmony. It’s a piece about climate change, but it’s far from didactic: its power lies in its understated gentleness and cumulative sorrow. A rich woman sings of taking her son to see all the world’s oceans; children colour in tropical fish in a book — what world are those children inheriting?
Paradox underpins the piece: our appreciation of the world’s beauty goes hand in hand with our destruction of it. The whole thing, which plays on a loop with each cycle lasting an hour, feels like an elegy for a way of life, a memory preserved. The inertia and ordinariness are part of the point, as is the godlike viewpoint of the spectators: we could be watching ourselves, snatching those moments in the sun as the world spirals to an end. Stunning.
To July 10, liftfestival.com
Ambassadors Theatre, London
In drama, the imminent demise of a parent is rarely accompanied by an outbreak of good behaviour among the family. And so it goes with two new plays on the London stage: Mad House and The Fellowship.
In Mad House, American playwright Theresa Rebeck follows in the footsteps of Eugene O’Neill and Tracy Letts in giving us prime familial dysfunction behind closed doors. The ailing parent here is Daniel, dying of emphysema and confined to his grubby home (great set from Frankie Bradshaw) in rural Pennsylvania. We soon realise that Daniel, played with spectacular nastiness by Bill Pullman, has elevated raging against the dying of the light to Olympic standards.
He begins by flinging the soup, carefully made by his live-in carer son Michael (David Harbour, excellent), across the kitchen and escalates from there: cussing, hollering and lobbing insults at his son, most viciously about his mental health. “I don’t think he’s in pain because he’s so energetically engaged in inflicting it,” says Michael down the phone to his sister.
The entrance of a gentle but no-nonsense hospice nurse (played with watchful dignity by Akiya Henry) makes for a brief cessation of hostilities, but soon the pitch-black comedy is back, notched up another couple of levels once Michael’s money-grubbing brother Ned (Stephen Wight) and monstrously bossy sister Pam (Sinéad Matthews) show up.
This is clearly a household with more skeletons than closets to put them in, and sure enough in the second act, played out on the porch, which is Michael’s haven, they come tumbling out. That’s all good, but the play wanders off track. We expect it to dive deeper, for the complexities behind Daniel’s irascibility to seep out, for soul-baring that feels both true and terrible. We do get some astute observations about festering childhood resentments, but huge issues are only touched on and are accompanied by an awkward, melodramatic plot twist and unbelievable, off-the-scale malevolence from Pam.
Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s production is very good at delivering the wince-making comedy but can’t reconcile these problems. Instead this is an evening distinguished by its two lead performances: Pullman, painfully and defiantly nasty; Harbour superb as Michael — a gentle bear of a man haunted by his own fragilities and ill-suited to a tough, grasping world.
To September 4, madhousetheplay.co.uk
Hampstead Theatre, London
We never see Sylvia, the dying parent, in her diminished state in Roy Williams’s new work The Fellowship, but her presence seeps through the play like mist. She was a member of the Windrush generation: her passing fills the air with questions for her two fiftysomething daughters. What is her legacy? What does the future hold for the generations that succeed her? What does it mean now to be black, British and a woman?
The two sisters at the play’s centre find different answers: Marcia is a successful lawyer who wants to change the system from the inside; Dawn, traumatised by the murder of her oldest son by racist thugs and still raging at a Britain that nearly deported her mother during the Windrush scandal, suggests that her sister is only tolerated. Dawn’s son Jermaine (Ethan Hazzard), meanwhile, wants to forge a future with his white girlfriend.
When Marcia takes the rap for a driving offence committed by her white MP lover, things start to unravel. And when Sylvia dies, all the characters’ pent-up tensions pour out. There’s so much to say and so many deeply entrenched, complex issues to tackle that the play feels overcrammed: it’s one of those situations where just representing the enormity of what people have to deal with becomes unwieldy in a drama.
But Williams writes with a mixture of humour, fury and compassion. What really carries the piece is the relationship between Dawn and Marcia, which Williams draws in all its rich, loving, messy depth and which Cherrelle Skeete and Suzette Llewellyn bring vividly to life in Paulette Randall’s production (Skeete, who only stepped up from understudy recently, fully inhabiting the part). They fight, hug, bump chests like a couple of kids and dance unashamedly to Culture Club and John Travolta. Dawn’s Alexa is almost another character and her taste in white pop music is a constant subject of teasing — but also a joyous release.
To July 23, hampsteadtheatre.com