Sea Wall, presented by Bright Young Things, Quiet Things Creative and One for One Collective, is one of the most austere theatrical productions I’ve ever seen. It’s surprisingly potent given the haphazard aesthetic and radically understated performance. When Jamie Cavanagh’s Alex meanders onto the the tiny stage of The Assembly Theatre, he settles into the environment with a resigned inevitability that festers in your gut.
Director Belinda Cornish’s staging of Simon Stephens’ solo one-act is deliberately anti-theatrical. There is no set to speak of. The random objects strewn about seem almost entirely without purpose, giving the impression of unused theatre property that hasn’t found proper storage. A crudely rigged-up electric kettle and tea cup are the only props with which Cavanagh ever interacts—and even this action remains incomplete as the cup of tea he distractedly prepares remains forever untouched.
From the moment Alex starts to speak, the intimacy is acute. The venue is intensely small, so even the furthest audience member isn’t more than ten feet away. The house lights are not even dimmed, leaving us as exposed as he is. Other than the fact that we’re seated, there’s very little that separates him from us. There’s no breaking of the fourth wall because it never even existed.
Alex is a professional photographer though this figures less prominently here than his identity as a young husband and father. So much time is spent on mundane details of family life, leading us into a false sense of banal security. Cavanagh’s voice is soft and even throughout. The simple, telling images conjured by Simon’s text find their way into our psyche without the need for overt dramatic emphasis.
He tells us about the quirks of his wife, Helen, their daughter, Lucy, and a hard-won friendship that forms with his gruff ex-military father-in-law. It is while vacationing at this man’s home in the south of France that the humdrum, tranquil monotony of Alex’s tale hits up against a difficult truth.
There are a couple of moments when he’s about to reveal some awful thing, but gets caught in a lingering silence before abruptly changing course. Tension builds with each abandoned confession. When he matter-of-factly mentions the hole in his stomach, we’re already so primed for an aching reveal that it feels less like the metaphor we know it to be than a grotesque and tangible deformity we imagine could very well be lurking just under his shirt.
The revelation finally comes and it’s handled with the same unaffected bluntness that has been gradually lulling us into a dream-like state of nostalgia and increasing dread. All can go wrong so fast and yet the world keeps slogging relentlessly forward. Cavanagh gives us persuasive hints at the depth of Alex’s ache and invites our imaginations to fill in the emotion we glimpse in his eyes.
Sea Wall fully captures the terrifying sensation of unsure footing. Listening to one man’s attempt to keep on solid ground, to face people and places after a fall, feels like a proper tribute to human resilience.