Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall is raw and devastating. This one-man play begins lightly, Alex (Andrew Scott) chatting amiably about his father-in-law, holidays in the South of France, and his deep affection for his wife and daughter. Yet, strung through this narrative is a tension that tightens as the story unfolds. The audience are constantly on edge, watching as Alex circles closer and closer to the painful story aching at the play’s centre.
Stephens strips one-man play’s minimalism back to an extreme, leaving audiences only with Scott and the cluttered studio in which he talks. All too often, one-man theatre leans on music, sound, and lighting to feed life into their narratives, but Stephens’ eloquent writing gives us all we need. It is poetic, bursting with vivid images that construct real relationships in a tangible world. The age of Alex’s daughter, Lucy, is marked not by numbers, but by the age she begins to wear cardigans. Similarly, Alex’s affection for his wife is displayed in the way he describes their household routines, the way she looks in a blue dress. Stephens’ imagery forcefully communicates Alex’s feelings and lingers in our minds long after the film has finished.
The writing is perfectly paced. It builds steadily and grips us to the screen as Alex spirals down more tangents and focuses on more details, clinging onto the mundane to distract himself, and us, from his pain as he winds closer to the truth. The monologue is conversational and realistic. Alex begins a thought, then shifts mid-gear as he becomes distracted. He references conversations, the way something looked or felt, cutting naturally between musings on God, on Lucy, on the sun, the sea. It is difficult to remember that this is a character, not a real man.
Scott is magnificent. Sea Wall’s writer, Simon Stephens, directs alongside Andrew Porter, and under their talent Scott seamlessly fuses with Alex’s character. Scott plucks thoughts from the air and searches his mind for memories like they are his own. When Alex flounders for a forgotten word, Scott spreads out his arms expansively and puckers his mouth, and we jump to prompt him. He creates such an intimacy that we believe he really speaks to us. Scott colours Alex’s world with brief, naturalistic imitations of other characters, slipping softly into a different accent and tone, adjusting his posture and features. Most powerfully, Scott embraces the narrative’s rawness and is unafraid to let it breathe, taking long pauses that his body fills with meaning, vibrating with expression. He tells us: “I’m holding my entire head together. The skin and the shell of me”, and as his face grimaces, his clawed hands gripping nothingness, we believe him. Scott’s flawless characterisation of grief is painfully real.
At just 30 minutes long, Sea Wall’s deep immersion into another’s life is nothing short of genius. It’s not the easiest watch, weighted as it is with intensity and heartbreak, but it is a unique, beautiful piece of art that needs to be seen.
Sea Wall is available to watch here until 25 May at 21:00 BST.
Featured Image Source: Still via Sea Wall // YouTube. Director of Photography: Jack Dillon