“A ‘clean up’, that’s what they’re calling this, they’ll clean us up along with it, this’ll be the beginning. They’ve got no qualms taking away the actual history of a place.”[1]

The Old Red Lion Theatre, one of London’s finest fringe theatre venues, is currently playing host to the debut of Tallulah Brown’s Sea Fret. Described on the back of the published edition of the script as “a paean to her native Suffolk coastline”,[2] Sea Fret sees Brown explore the damage being wrought by coastal erosion on local history and communities on England’s East Coast. This is not a geography lesson however; do not be put off by flashbacks to monotonous lessons about longshore drift. Sea Fret is an intelligently written and moving play in which the encroaching sea is used to explore issues of friendship, the unstoppable passage of time, and, most importantly, class.

Sea Fret tells the story of Lucy (Georgia Kerr) and Ruby (Lucy Carless) – or Pale Tits and the Wildman as they call each other – at a fork in the road. Lucy and Ruby are two eighteen-year-old girls who have been inseparable friends throughout school, but the times are changing: Lucy is going away to university and Ruby’s house is hanging half off the cliff edge, about to be swallowed by the sea unless there is some drastic last minute help from the council. There is a final meeting coming up to decide the fate of Ruby’s house, but she is distracted by wanting to have one final drug and alcohol fuelled blowout with her best friend on the beach. Ruby’s father, Jim (Philippe Spall), has seemingly given up the fight, accepting that there is nothing he can do to stop the powers at be condemning the home in which he was raised to the mercy of nature, and it is apparently left to Lucy’s mother, Pam (Karen Brooks) to try and rouse Jim into action to fight for what’s his.

This debut production of Sea Fret comes from the recently founded company Loose Tongue, who aim to showcase “exceptional new writing”,[3] and is directed by Carla Kingham. The space of the Old Red Lion stage is used intelligently to bring this play to life: pebbles litter the floor, bringing the stony shores of East Anglia into North London, and in the centre of the stage an old collapsing WWII pillbox protrudes about two feet off the ground, tilting towards the audience. The pillbox is of central importance of Sea Fret: it stands not only as a monument to the history of the area that Jim is trying to protect, but also, through their graffiti that litters its surface, as a documented history of Lucy and Ruby’s friendship. Placing the pillbox – the object that ties the two strands of the play together – at the centre of the stage certainly aids the narrative, but in addition to this it is ingeniously used as a form of on-stage backstage: the space within it is used to conceal both props and people, giving invaluable extra space to the somewhat cramped confines that one finds with any fringe theatre stage.

To delve further into the issues that Sea Fret explores without giving too much of the plot away, the central truth that undergirds this play is the different social classes of these two families, and the impact this has on their ability to stand apart from the danger of the sea. The play opens with Ruby drawing attention to the different attire of her and her friend: Ruby sits at the bus stop wearing an Adidas tracksuit and Lucy enters in a fur coat. According to Ruby this makes Lucy look like she’s “been places […] When you haven’t actually been anywhere”.[4] But she is of course about to “go places”, one hundred and sixty miles away to university to be specific, and for all of the supposed academic superiority this gives Lucy over her friend, it is only Ruby who seems to understand the implications of it: their lives are about to go in such vastly different directions that it is unlikely this friendship can be maintained. Lucy consistently demonstrates her naivety about the stark realities of her friend’s situation, even going so far as at one point to suggest that a solution to Ruby’s very imminent housing problem would be for her to come live on the floor of Lucy’s university halls. As the play goes on, it becomes clear that this naivety stems from the different social spheres to which these two old friends belong.

Lucy and Pam are part of the aspirational middle class, and this has instilled into them a lack of identity with one singular place. Lucy’s father works in London, and it seems that he and Pam have bought a nice house in the London commuter belt because the money goes further, not because they have an attachment to the community. This is contrasted against Ruby and Jim’s belief in loving where you’re from and having an attachment to its history, but this belief also has at least one foot in the fact that Ruby and Jim do not have the resources to go elsewhere: everything Jim owns is hanging off a cliff edge and about to fall at any moment. Pam and Lucy, however, are able to move inland, away from the danger of the waves. The situation, in short, is materially real only to Ruby and Jim. The cruel irony is that in order to have any chance of saving his home, Jim needs the help of the middle class Pam. No matter how much research Jim has put into building up a case, he feels it will be ignored if delivered by him, talking in the way he talks. He implores Pam, “we need you to make our case clear, to use all the right words”,[5] in one of the scenes which most sharply illustrates the power class dynamics at work in this play.

This is a fantastic debut production with great performances from the entire cast. Lucy Carless, in her theatrical debut after starring in Channel 4’s Humans, captures the defiant desperation of Ruby brilliantly, and the interplay between her and Georgina Kerr (Lucy) is both richly comic and deeply emotional as we see these old friends plunged into uncertainty. In her portrayal of Pam, Karen Brooks grounds the production: trying to reign in the excesses of the girls’ partying and whip everyone into shape for the council meeting. And Philippe Spall’s performance as Jim is exceptional: it becomes clear throughout the play just how complex and layered a character Ruby’s father is, and Spall brings out every aspect of this and creates many of the most emotional and memorable moments of the show.

I’ll leave it to you to see the play, as I recommend that you do, to find out how events transpire for the characters of Sea Fret. But it is undeniable that, though this story is set very deliberately in her home Suffolk coastline, Tallulah Brown has written a play with messages that resonate far and wide. Any future fringe theatre practitioners would also do well to be advised that the first act of Sea Fret would make a brilliant piece of theatre in its own right, and I can see this play having a long life in a variety of formats. Throughout Sea Fret, Jim is likened to King Canute because of his futile battle against the waves, but, while what Lucy says to Ruby is true: “no one can stop the sea”,[6] this play and this cast make it clear that only some people are given no help when trying to do so.

Sea Fret is showing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until the 22nd of April. More details can be found here

 

[1] Tallulah Brown, Sea Fret (London: Bloomsbury, 2017): 16

[2] Tallulah Brown, Sea Fret (London: Bloomsbury, 2017)

[3] https://www.loosetongue.co.uk/

[4] Tallulah Brown, Sea Fret (London: Bloomsbury, 2017): 3

[5] Ibid. 37

[6] Ibid. 42