One bench and two black boxes were all that comprised the set that was to transform the Burton Taylor Studio into the Essex seaside. Fortunately, the strength of Jack Clover’s script held its own against this modest backdrop. Beachcombing boasts new writing that rivals the plays shortlisted in the New Writing Festival of Hilary term.
The play revolves around the emergence of an unlikely friendship between a vicar and a seventeen-year-old girl. After losing his wife to cancer, James (Will Stanford) finds unexpected solace in the company of Amy (Aoife Cantrill) who in turn offloads the pressures of her broken home onto the vicar. All the ingredients for an inappropriate relationship are therefore subverted; the vulnerability shared by the two characters inclines them to come to terms with their respective sorrows. Or so it seems, until the rough sleeping Amy morphs into James’ wife Helena, Cantrill switching between characters in a series of flashbacks which reveal the touching relationship between James and Helena. Their friendship is clearly reminiscent of James’ marriage, which becomes most obviously apparent in the ambitious scene in which Cantrill even shifts between playing Amy and Helena mid-dialogue.
Cantrill’s nuanced performance was one of the strongest I’ve seen at the BT studio; funny, moving, and impressively versatile, her seamless multi-rolling did justice to this ambitious premise. Stanford’s vicar was similarly convincing, offering the sympathetic performance of both a bumbling lover and an aggrieved widower. Their physical theatre sequences were perhaps the highlight of the play, used in the flashback to James and Helena’s relationship which, displaying borrowings from the techniques of Frantic Assembly, proved an effective tool for reviving their relationship. Although the movements occasionally erred on wooden and static, something which will doubtless be ironed out during the course of the run, the sequences were an inventive addition to a touching script.
Director Jack Clover’s non-naturalistic vision for his writing dared to stage what much of Oxford drama tends to shy away from; live singing, physical theatre, multirole and stark lighting changes, his imaginative direction makes for engaging theatre that sustains the audience’s attention throughout.
The supporting actors, Alethea Redfern and Fred Wienand, played a crucial role in creating a sense of this distinctive style, multi-rolling between the church congregation, Amy’s mother, Helena’s brother, the sea and a TV voiceover. Although they were used creatively in the early scene changes, as music or live singing carried us from one space to another, it would have been more consistent if non-naturalistic techniques had marked all the transitions between scenes, as blackouts increasingly became the less exciting alternative. However, on the whole, the technical elements were used inventively, with the lighting helpfully marking the changes between time period and character and the 60s, ‘beachy’ music providing a creative substitute for the minimalist set.
I couldn’t help but notice a few teary audience members as the house light came up, a testament to the sympathetic performances, physical sequences and poignant turns of the scripts. Funny, tragic, heart-warming and refreshingly different, Beachcombing is a piece of new writing that is not to be missed.
Beachcombing is on at the BT Studio until Saturday 16th May, performing at 7.30pm.