Lost at Sea is at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh for only 3 performances (Monday 20th May to Wednesday 22nd May) and that is far too short a time for this powerful work of theatre to get the exposure to as many people as it deserves here so hopefully Lost at Sea will make a return in the future for a longer performance run.
Written by Morna Young, this story originally created for Perth Theatre at Horsecross Arts, is itself on a spring tour from Thursday 25th April to Friday 24th May, and it has been attracting some very favourable reviews along the tour.
Lost at Sea is exactly what the title suggests, it is in part the story of one man from a fishing community who was “lost at sea” and his body never found. That man was Morna’s father – Daniel “Donnie” Young, lost at sea in a fishing accident on 10th April 1989. I have, I think, however to be clear at this point in the review that, although this story is firmly rooted in this personal tragedy, it is not the story of either Morna or her father. This story, although it takes “verbatim” statements from people in the fishing community, is fictional and all the characters in this story are fictional too. What Lost at Sea does have though is the inner perspective of someone belonging to a closed community, someone born into it like Morna Young. Lost at Sea is on one level a personal homage to Morna’s father and his way of life, but on a wider canvas, it is a portrait of all fishing communities and everyone who has lost someone at sea. This is a story of tradition, and oral language as a tradition is also celebrated here in the writer’s use of the Doric language.
To those of us who are “outsiders” to a fishing community and fishing heritage, we have no real personal understanding of just what “The Sea” means to fishing communities, or what drives the men-folk to go out in often treacherous waters to try and earn a living. All good stories at their core are simply stories of everyday people, and here Morna has given us a tight script that gives an outsider like me a small window into the many forces that drive any fishing community. At that very core is tradition and a connection with the sea from birth that most of us will never truly understand. To anyone born into a fishing community, the sea is not simply water, it is a living entity full of as many faces and emotions as any human being. The sea is the giver of everything – food, livelihoods and income for the whole community; it is the giver of everything, but also the taker of everything. On the sea, all men and all boats are entirely at the mercy of its winds, its whims and its often cold and treacherous waters. Should you ever be unfortunate enough to fall overboard into the sea then your survival span is measured in minutes. Fishing communities and fishermen know from bitter experience just how fragile and insignificant a boat is out on the open seas.
Starring Tam Dean Burn (Skipper), Sophia McLean (Shona), Jennifer Black (Meg), Helen McAlpine (Kath), Ali Craig (Jock), Andy Clark (Kevin), Kim Gerard (Eve), Thoren Ferguson (Mate/Musician) and Gerry Mulgrew (Billy), this production has an experienced cast with the ability to bring to life the multi-layered characters of Morna’s script. At its core we have a family bound forever to the sea and two brothers, Jock and Kev, (so well played by Ali Craig and Andy Clark) destined it seems to be always at odds with one another. Cleverly with this script we also get an insight into the lives of the women who wait at home for their men to return and the added difficulty that this can bring when you are an outsider to this way of life. There is here an air of being resigned to ones fate by the elements and forces beyond their control that is strangely coupled with a belief in “God watching over them”. With often understated performances this cast give us an insight into the soul of a closed community.
The exception to this understated performance has of course got to be Tam Dean Burn. It is Tam as “Skipper” who unfolds this story to the returning to home Shona as she tries to get to the truth of her father’s accident at sea some 20 years earlier. As “Skipper”, Tam gets with prose, song and poetry to be as over the top at times as he wants here and it works wonderfully. I have to be honest here and say that I am not too sure at times just who Tam’s “Skipper” is as he often seems to represent many “Skippers” of the past, and at times almost a conscience of all “skippers”. Shona (Sophia McLean), although the driving motivation for our story here, does take a secondary seat often to the larger story here as it unfolds.
There is an eternal and enduring “romance of the sea” to many of us, but this story, seen from inside a fishing community, has none of those lofty illusions. Instead, this story with tight direction from Ian Brown gives us one of hardships when there are no catches of fish to land and always danger even in the best of times. Good design (Karen Tennent) and lighting (Katharine Williams) also allow our story to be told in one performance space, and the widening view of the sea as our story unfolds is used to very good dramatic effect here. All of our actual fishing stories take place upon a slightly raised stage area which itself has very special visual significance to what tales unfolds here. Sound design and music from Pippa Murphy fit perfectly into the atmosphere of this production.
“Lost at Sea”, a bit like “Missing in Action” during war-time, returns no body home to the relatives and for many this provides no real closure to their death and this is a large element of this story. Perhaps the most powerful and poignant part of this production comes right at the end of our fictional narrative, and I have no intention of giving away “spoilers” here; go and see the show if you want to find out more.
Review by Tom King