Monday, 9 October 2017

Theatre review: A Day by the Sea

Southwark Playhouse’s publicity is keen to label rediscovered 1950s playwright N C Hunter as “the English Chekhov,” and if A Day by the Sea is a fair representation of his work it’s a comparison he would have been actively seeking. There’s a family and extended group of hangers-on, reuniting at a home in the country; wistful hopes that generations in the future will have eradicated the problems that plague its characters daily; the characters moping around long after the story’s come to a natural end; and even the requisite alcoholic doctor. As a child, Frances Farrar was taken in by the Anson family in Dorset when she was orphaned, but while she remembers her time there happily she more or less lost touch for twenty years after she moved out. Now, widowed from her first husband in World War II and divorced from her second – who then attempted suicide – Frances (Alix Dunmore) is invited back there with her own children for the school holidays, to sit out the scandal.

Laura Anson (Susan Tracy) is now widowed herself, and looks after the house and garden as well as her late husband’s octogenarian brother David (David Whitworth,) who’s increasingly frail and sleeps most of the time.

Also there on a rare visit is Laura’s son Julian (John Sackville,) a humourless, workaholic civil servant in the Foreign Office. He’s dedicated his life to diplomacy but his lack of personality means he’s totally unsuited to it, and while on holiday he gets the news that his request to stay on at the Paris Embassy has been denied – the barely-concealed reason being that nobody there can stand him. This kicks off a midlife crisis at just the time when Frances, who represents a road not taken, is back in his life.

There’s definitely a dusty quality to the play which means it takes a while to get going, but Tricia Thorns’ production does warm up and make a decent case for it. Alex Marker’s set frames the action in the style of an old-fashioned photo album, which is a lovely design but does very much add to the effect of this being a museum piece (as well as another Chekhov reference, as it reminded me of the 1990s “picture frame” production of The Seagull in the Olivier.)

But while I did warm to the play by the interval, by the second half it becomes obvious that there’s a point where “influenced by” blurs into “derivative of,” and A Day by the Sea falls into this. It might be Chekhov without the gun but there’s plenty more that soon starts to feel inevitable. Anyone who’s seen a handful of Chekhov plays will be several steps ahead of the action, which leaves the audience in the ultimately unsatisfying position of sitting back and waiting for the characters to catch up.

A Day by the Sea by N C Hunter is booking until the 28th of October at Southwark Playhouse’s Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Philip Gammon.

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