Have you ever looked at the current economic crisis and wanted to escape? Dreamt of running away to a safe haven? A Utopia? What if the search for your little slice of heaven took you to the middle of the ocean, completely abandoned, on an old oil rig? Last week I went to see SEALAND performed at the Wilde Theatre in South Hill Park, Berkshire, to discover whether paradise really can be found in the most unimaginable place on earth. Written by Luke Clarke and making up the second part of my double feature on this talented individual and the recently graduated students of East 15 Acting School, I found myself engrossed in one man’s dream to create the perfect escape, and absolutely horrified by the results.
Let me start by painting the scene. Ted and his son have started a small colony on an abandoned oil rig named Sealand, to escape the pessimism and restriction of broken Britain. They are joined by Liz and Gary, an alcoholic, and their daughter Sarah. The play cleverly explores the interpretations of what makes a utopia, and how far humans are willing to go to preserve their slice of paradise. In essence, the script is an extremely interesting psychosocial study, which one wouldn’t be surprised to see televised on the prime time slot one evening. The play is dark, tense and challenging to the audience’s morals, yet immensely witty. Where Luke Clarke has excelled in his writing and direction, is that he has created characters that relatable to the audience, with just the right amount of spice and personality to create a boiling pot of emotions and tension that such an isolated and claustrophobic setting will explode. Can we condone the actions that take place in this isolated setting? And is it Britain that is broken, or its people? On entering the theatre, you truly are isolated with the characters in the middle of the ocean, met on stage by subtly aquatic and sombre lighting and a single platform comprising the oil rig. The scenes play out either on deck or below deck, and the seemingly small set cleverly opens up to reveal the lower level, but the result is still claustrophobic, making the atmosphere perceivably tense, perfectly creating suspense from the offset.
And yet the set is also very flexible. The characters are able to fish off the sides with rods, lift, lock and close trap doors, and the barrels and chests not only aid the nautical feel, but they are also extremely easy to arrange in different scenes, to create variety with the passing of days. For such a small and claustrophobic set, where the actors truly are just a few feet from each other at times, there is a breathtaking amount of adaptability in each new scene. We see the characters cook, fish, stargaze and rave on the smallest of sets, and yet size and movement is by no means an issue.
In fact, there isn’t much about the play that hinders the performance, or that dramatically needs changing. At times, the sound mixing was a little questionable, particularly in the opening scene during a storm, over which it was very difficult to hear the actors dialogue. Perhaps some scene changes were also a little abrupt. However, these are small issues that are most definitely easily addressed and resolved, and no doubt will be for the show’s true run at the Edinburgh Fringe.
What is refreshing about the show, is it’s originality. Not just the concept and impeccable writing from Clarke, but the sheer talent on show from a group of performers freshly out of drama school. Many of them in fact, performed like seasoned professionals, owning the stage and commanding the audience’s attentions and emotions.
The star the show by far for me was Jess Stone playing Sarah, the teenage daughter of Gary and Liz. Undoubtedly, Sarah’s is the most humorous character, provoking laugh out loud moments, particularly when teasing Alex about his sexual inexperience and naivety. What Jess brings to the character is a perfect balance between rebellious teenager, frustrated young woman and vulnerable girlishness. Far from just being funny, Jess plays the serious scenes seriously well. The audience truly feels for her mistakes and her desperation to break away from the poisonous atmosphere and she definitely has the most commanding stage presence of all the performers.
The character of Alex, Ted’s son, played by Ed Pinker, also offers the audience light relief from the stormy atmosphere on stage. The audience laughs along with Sarah’s teasing, but Ed Pinker’s charm and innocence often makes us laugh with and not at Alex. I see this character as the conscience of the play. The moral glue around the other more dysfunctional characters, yet the audience most definitely enjoys watching him be led astray and the hilarious outcome it provokes. The highlights of Pinker’s performance and the play in its entirety are the aftermath of the rave with Sarah, and Alex’s performance of Sealand’s national anthem.
Janet Etuk in the role of Liz, is not only the mother of the play and the characters, she’s the human element of the piece. Janet brings a soft and kind nature to the mix of characters, drawing sympathy and empathy from the audience. Her’s is definitely the character with the most sadness, the most distress, yet she quietly endures and admirably perseveres. Whilst possibly the most understated of the characters and performers, Etuk commands a remarkable presence on stage. When she speaks, you pay attention, when she speaks, you listen, and when she speaks, you feel.
Gary is an important role in the play, without having as much stage time as the rest of the characters. Seamus Bradford demonstrated great control of his emotions when desperately trying to overcome the character’s frustrations, anger and alcoholism. I would have like to have seen perhaps a little more development with this character, but the audience is allowed brief glimpses of the character’s softer side in a touching scene shared between Gary and Sarah.
Daniel Ainsworth is domineering and controlling as Sealand leader, Ted. Trying desperately to hold on to and maintain his dream of a perfect life away from Britain, away from unemployment, violence and crime, Ainsworth successfully pushes the boundaries of the audience’s emotions and morals, when his extreme actions lead to a very disturbing and exciting climax. Perhaps moments in the play could be handled more delicately, however Ainsworth’s performance does split the audience over who the support and sympathy should go to.
The play is without a shadow of a doubt incredibly deserving of four stars. For the first piece of writing and direction Luke Clarke has professionally showcased, it is both triumphant and deeply emotional. Tense and dramatic. Witty and incredibly challenging. Making for a play that is both thought provoking and entertaining. Minor issues can be easily ironed out before the show gets into full swing on its Edinburgh run, and the wealth of talent on stage from performers recently graduated is immense and awe-inspiring. Capturing the audience’s imagination, challenging the depths of our emotions and morals, this play is a dead cert to be very popular at the Fringe, and I have no doubt that a successful run will very quickly materialise for this talented group of artists.