Review: A Day by the Sea, Southwark Playhouse

When I enter the cosy space of the Southwark Playhouse, an immediate feeling of nostalgia sweeps over me. Background music plays, the kind that conjures images of lovers running through fields to meet one another after years of separation, or locations like Downton Abbey.

Whilst the audience take their seats, the actors are already absorbed in the bubble of their world. The lights are warm and bright on a neat, affluent-looking patio, decked with symmetrically aligned shrubs. David Anson, played by David Whitworth, is escorted to his chair by Doctor Farley, where he promptly falls asleep. One by one characters emerge, occupied with some trivial activity – children playing, the governess or the mother checking on them. This preemptive action cleverly creates a feeling of absorption in this little home life, which is to act as a microcosm for larger questions that the play is to ask.

C. Hunter’s play is a 20th century pastoral. Set in a large country estate in the idyllic location of Dorset. A middle-class, haphazard group while away the hours by the seaside. Laura Anson, the widowed Mother of the house surrounds herself with a patchwork family. Her son, a civil servant in the Foreign Office, is home from Paris, as well as his childhood sweetheart, who is now a widow to her second husband and Mother to two children. Laura’s elderly brother-in-law sleeps in his chair all day, ‘cared for’ – questionably – by an alcoholic doctor. The Governess and family accountant are also about their business.

With birds chirping, the Doctor acting as philosophical figure and references to Shakespeare’s classic pastoral ‘As You Like It’, it ticks all the boxes of the genre. Twos Company’s revival is in keeping with the realist tone of the text. They present nothing magical, but ordinary life onstage. No attempt to hide the fact that the actors themselves do the set changes adds a further layer of reality.

The company have assembled a special cast of actors; who seem to have a bond between them beyond the superficial family relationships of their characters. Hunter’s text delves deeply into the characters of his plot, to create real and complex people, framed in a way that highlights the comedy in the everyday, ordinary folk.  I thought the cast succeeded in portraying these subtly hyper-realistic characters, charming and humorous throughout.

John Sackville, playing Julian Anson and Susan Tracey, as Laura Anson, were my favourite performers. They played their complex parts with such consistency and ease, that I had no doubts about their character. I particularly enjoyed the mother-son quarrels over one another’s occupation, and their parallel stubbornness of will.

This take brings a contemporary relevance to the plays Post-World-War setting. Julian’s position in the Foreign Office, organising post-war Europe, is likened to Brexit, when lines such as “the fate of Europe depends on it”, are given particular weight. Such puns went down particularly well with the audience.

A minor criticism would be that I found the infrequent sound effects unnecessary. The noise of the sea sounds too industrious and the chirping of the birds too artificial – ill-fitting in an otherwise realistic play. But overall, a charming production, that makes you walk out warm-hearted, more aware of the pleasures to be found in the simplicity of life.

A Day By The Sea played at the Southwark Playhouse until the 28th October.