A cliffside town on the brink of literal collapse is the setting for When The Sea Swallows Us Whole - a production that is engaging and baffling by turns. The story follows Mila’s inner and outer reactions after the arrival of city girl Posy awakens unfamiliar feelings in her. But the fate of the town, and her long-time friendship with nervy Doll, place emotional and metaphysical obstacles in her path to self-acceptance.
The setting is brilliantly evoked on arrival. Doll sits on a pile of crates, adorned with blue netting and surrounded by litter; Mila paces up and down the stage, looking out into the audience as if searching the horizon. Mila dominates the play, giving us access to her inner thoughts through fourth-wall-breaking monologues that turn out to be addressed to someone missing from her life. The depth and complexity of her bond with Doll is beautifully drawn, as their easy banter is undercut with occasional physical awkwardness; they approach emotional honesty and then slide away from it, like the tide that continually threatens their home.
Posy’s entrance is unexpected, coming quite late on, but instantly creates new layers to the story as her presence rocks the foundations of Mila’s already precarious existence. All three actors give strong performances and convey the changing dynamics of their relationships well. The lighting is also extremely effective in switching the focus from a shared, direct action scene to Mila’s inner monologue.
Posy’s rational confidence makes a good counterpoint to the religious terror that strikes the other two when more houses start collapsing into the sea. And it’s an interesting comment on society that the townsfolk fear their moral sins are being punished by an angry god, but do not consider their culpability in the damage to the environment that is really causing their home to be destroyed.
But there’s also a question here about what is and is not real in Mila’s world. Doll sees a puma’s watching eyes everywhere he goes, and this otherworldly vision expands to affect the story more directly towards the end, in a way that was lost on me. I wondered at one point if Mila was actually the only ‘real’ character in the play - but the big cats could also have been a metaphor about Doll’s fear of turning into his violent father, or some kind of more general statement about the difficulties of growing up without a support system. I’m really not sure.
Overall though, this is an intriguing and well-produced play, with a great cast and an affecting storyline about loss of innocence and finding yourself. It just didn’t always seem to know where it was going, and had an off-the-wall ending that left me rather confused.