‘Sea Wall’ was captivating.
THAT Production Company’s ‘Sea Wall’ at the Ipswich Civic Centre was a gripping piece of live performance. What struck me about this production was its humble reminder that epic, powerful stories can be told by a single person on an empty stage – no flashy effects or tricks.
‘Sea Wall’ was commissioned by London’s Bush Theatre in 2008, starring Andrew Scott and written by Simon Stephens, who also adapted the acclaimed ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ for National Theatre. It’s a one-man play, written as a monologue by main character Alex, but largely conversational with the audience. Alex talks to us about his life so far; his wife, his daughter, the memorable visit to a sea wall with a good friend of his, his nagging doubt in God, the empty, searching feelings that swirl in his stomach. He constantly becomes distracted from his lines of thought (enthusiastically telling us about the vanilla yoghurt he loves so much) all the while growing more agitated and confessional, until he can no longer hold it in: his daughter died in an accident and the meaning of life as he knew it slipped away from him. He questions his ability as a father, his love for his partner, his purpose, role and existence in his world. It’s a heartfelt and deeply personal journey. The play is meant to be performed with complete surrender, stripped back with nowhere to hide, and is essential to the material and the impact on those watching. THAT’s production follows this and does even more.
Director Timothy Wynn’s limbo-like world where we saw and felt Alex’s internal struggle was equal parts clear and real. It struck a balance between exposing Alex’s inner musings and leaving space to decide where he was literally and mentally. For me, I was listening in on a grief counselling session, but the real beauty of this is that everyone left with an individual and special picture of why they were being spoken to. All the while, the set design by Wynn of a plain black wall was obscure enough to achieve this, but guided me to consider themes of grief and loneliness predominantly. It was also clear that Wynn had ensured there was a deep connection between text and actor, as each moment and beat was detailed and filled with subtleties. I never looked away.
Brady Watkins as sound designer gave us a muffled lapping of waves on a beach that gradually rose in volume as the show progressed, which was wonderful in supporting Alex to reach his emotional climax (and ourselves too, with our hearts in our chests). I also appreciated the jarring clash of traffic noises at this climax that gave us more insight into his inner chaos. On the lighting end by Daniel Anderson, the design was simple, almost interrogative, until the last moments which became something religious with rays of light shining through the open window, creating more of a cold, dramatic final picture.
Steven Rooke is a fantastic actor. His Alex was hugely likeable and goofy, so much so that in the darkest parts of the play, he was like a good friend who you wanted to protect. His conversational tone, quirks and physicality created such a natural and authentic performance, and seeing every twitch in the intimate space was a real treat.
‘Sea Wall’ was often heartwarming, often soul crushing, and always truthful. THAT Production Company’s version reached out and begged for us to listen to this lone manand to understand that there is always hope in troubling times.
‘Sea Wall’ ran until Friday, 30 July 2021 at the Ipswich Civic Centre. For more information visit THAT Production Company website.
Photos by Tom Antonio