Wanderers, it’s hard to put on a show with only one actor. The writing has to be tight, there needs to be a clear vision, and the actor in question has to be astounding. Please bear this in mind as I try to give you the closest I can get to a spoiler-free review of Sea Wall.
Written by Simon Stephens and originally performed at London’s Bush Theatre in 2008, this unmissable piece of theatre blew my mind. It’s half an hour long, and takes the form of a monologue – one man speaking to the audience or, in the case of the film version available online here, the camera. How, you might ask, could this possibly be compelling enough to merit a review? Because it has all of the ingredients mentioned in the first paragraph – every aspect of the play itself is absolutely fine-tuned to perfection, and it’s all pulled together in a fantastic performance by Andrew Scott, of Sherlock fame.
The beauty of this play lies in the discovery, so if the Editor will allow me to get away with it, I’m going to say as little as possible about the story Alex (Scott) is telling. I’ve now seen Sea Wall both at the National Theatre (in its most recent run) and in film form, and while both are excellent, I’m going to refer to some of the audience reactions from the National Theatre in order to branch out a little from my own experience of it.
The entire room fell silent the moment the play began; the opening line caught the audience’s attention and from that moment on there was no taking our eyes off of Alex, who began telling us about his family and their holidays in France. He was an engaging storyteller, and very funny; we laughed, and, in that way the stage allows but the screen doesn’t, he took our laughter and milked it, drawing us in. We learnt a lot about Alex in very little time; he describes single experiences in such a way that a picture is created of his entire life, his home and the people he holds dear. It should be pointed out that, while a few of the audience were calling him ‘Moriarty’ as they entered, nobody said any such thing on the way out. Andrew Scott, and all his previous roles, didn’t appear on that stage – just awkward, loveable Alex, with no set to hide behind and nothing to detract from his words and, occasionally, impersonations.
Of course, having drawn the audience in, Alex’s emotions become easily transferred to us, and about halfway through the show he hits us with what he’s been leaving out of his narrative so far. For those of you who prefer not to become emotional when engaged with media, this is your warning; Sea Wall is another of those ones that leaves you not happy, but changed. It’s certainly thought-provoking, and it doesn’t pull its punches. But oh, Wanderers, it’s beautiful to experience.
The theatrical run has ended and, as far as I know, there are currently no plans for more performances, but the filmed version is still available to download and I highly recommend doing so. As a showcase of skill, Sea Wall excels, but more than that, the story is moving and feels as if it needed to be told and needs to be experienced. We share a profound few moments with Alex and, while I can’t speak for anyone else, I certainly come away from each viewing secretly hoping that listening to the tale has been helpful to him, the fictional character.
Sea Wall itself may not sprout a fandom as such – it doesn’t particularly lend itself to fan-creation because so much of the information we’d usually have to play with is right there in the canon – but if it didn’t stir up fans for those involved in its creation that would be a crying shame. For more general theatre fans, while the filmed version is not filmed on a stage, it’s definitely something to appreciate. Beautiful things are always worth admiring, and Sea Wall is just such a thing.
I’d give this play/film five out of five. Seriously. I can’t imagine it being done better.
Eleanor Musgrove (is off to rewatch and have a little cry)