Camilla Whitehill's grandmother died before she was born. Her father doesn't talk about it much. Here, at the head of a four-strong cast, Whitehill has set out to unlock hidden memories like her dad's: to tell the stories of diverse past lives, as boldly and as brightly as she can. After all, as she explains towards the end, you're only truly gone when you're forgotten – and the pain of loss can perhaps be eased just a little, if we find the will and courage to keep memories alive.
Whitehill's grandmother features in a cute working-class courtship scene, played out in an HP sauce factory (which works much better than I've just made it sound). Whitehill freely admits that this detail of her life is entirely invented, and the show as a whole plays extensively with our awareness that what we're witnessing isn't real. Next, actor Luke Courtier steps up, to deliver what for me was the highlight of the hour: a monologue in character as, of all things, a 1950's local beauty queen. The bearded Courtier is thoroughly convincing as a haughty northern glamour girl, and the ensemble parody of an old-school beauty contest is a comic gem, but then – in an electric turnaround – Courtier switches topic and pulls the mood right down.
Stephen Myott-Meadows steps up next, to tell what may or may not be the story of his life: a kind-of personal creation myth, and a tale of influence exerted from beyond the grave. It's an unexpected, gently humorous but thoughtful study, which makes universal points about the pressure of expectation from generations before. The final piece, a fairy-tale-crossed-with-a-parable about the search for someone lost, ties in most obviously to the show's advertised theme of grief; it's played for laughs but, like many simple stories, packs a hefty emotional punch.
Each of these scenes is enjoyable and thought-provoking, but I fear there are a couple of issues which hold the concept back. For me, the overt self-awareness – the actors' acknowledgment that they're acting – went a couple of steps too far, becoming a barrier to engaging with the stories rather than highlighting the truth behind them. Courtier's monologue carried me along beautifully, drawing me into the life of the broken beauty queen – but when, at the very end, he reminded me that he was pretending, I wondered if the story was a pretence as well. Similarly, when Myott-Meadows makes a point (and a joke) of how convincingly he can summon fake tears, it's easy to be cynical about the emotion Whitehill displays talking about her father.
The second point is that – despite giving myself a good few hours to think about it – I'm still rather hazy about the show's central theme. It was only at the end that I picked up the link between the stories: they're all about the influence worked upon your life by someone who died before you were born. Yet the motivating story isn't really Whitehill's, but Whitehill's father's, and how the death of his mother when he was a child has coloured the years since then. These are very different kinds of loss, and the confusion between them nagged at my mind throughout the piece.
On The Crest Of A Wave is avowedly experimental, and at a relatively early stage of its development too. To my mind, it grows a little tied up in its own structural cleverness, to the detriment of the truths it hopes to reveal. But the core stories are well-chosen and quietly affecting, and the cast is uniformly strong; with a little fine-tuning, there could be something genuinely powerful here.