“as meaningful a piece of drama as when it was first written”
Lidless Theatre presents a revival of Philip Ridley’s 2007 East End family drama minimally directed by Max Harrison. Played in the round with an acting space restricted by black benches on four sides (Designer Kit Hinchcliffe), it’s a small square to work in but the movement never appears cramped. With audience all around and a mirror glass floor reflecting upwards, the four characters are under examination from all directions.
Excellently lit throughout (Lighting Designer Alex Lewer) the mood is dark and brooding and none better than in the scene almost totally lit by candlelight, highlighting the action whilst emphasising the fears that lurk in the shadows. This atmosphere is heightened during scene changes by a strange and eerie soundscape (Sound Designer Sam Glossop).
Harrison writes in his programme note, that the play is about the elusiveness of memory and how the past can be manipulated to shape our lives. And, in fact, shape the lives of others. The relationship between two brothers is key. A relationship that is tainted by the memory of their pasts. They are both quite clear what they remember. It’s just that what they remember isn’t the same.
Truth is an elusive thing. What is the real reason that Debbie leaves the home and flees to her sister? A fear of rats in the cellar or of domestic abuse? And Liz (Kacey Ainsworth), mother to the two boys, changes her recollections of Barry’s artwork from something she thought hideous to something she remembers as beautiful. Memories are twisted and can’t be trusted.
Smartly dressed with his hair cut short, Steven (Ned Costello) is the elder brother and driving force in the family company. His lips tightly pursed, he is near monosyllabic when forced into conversation, responding to questioning with silence and a distant stare. The same response too when wife Debbie (Katie Buchholz) announces she is expecting their first child. But is Steven the father? Steven paranoically suggests he might not be.
Barry (Joseph Potter) is all that Steven is not. Dressed casually, hair flying free, he bounds with energy, a wildness lying behind his eyes. If Steven retains self-control, a coiled spring held in check, then Barry is that coil let go, a free spirit. If Steven’s languid articulation seems like something is being left unsaid, then Barry might suggest it is because his brother is repressing something unsavoury.
The cast of four are excellent together. Only the estuary vowels of the four Londoners, Liz particularly, close a little too near to soap opera at times.
This work is as meaningful a piece of drama as when it was first written. With its hints of shocking secrets that the family are unable to voice out loud, this production brings to the fore taboos of modern society that need to be shouted out loud.
It is a slow, and sometimes difficult journey, to discover what “Salt-Water Moon’ is really about. But do not let that put you off. In this context, ‘slow’ is synonymous with ‘gently absorbing’ while ‘difficult’ can be paraphrased to mean ‘thoughtful’ or ‘intelligently imaginative’. The ambiguity is deliberate as the play may not be to everybody’s taste, but it kicks off 2023 with a blast of fresh air that wouldn’t be out of place on the ragged Newfoundland coast that is the setting for this engaging two-hander.
Set in the front porch of a coastal summer house in 1926, “Salt-Water Moon” is essentially a love story. Mary Snow (Bryony Miller) is star gazing through an eyeglass. Mim Houghton’s simple, festooned design evokes the starry, starry night, complemented by Neill Brinkworth’s lighting: a palette of blue and gray. It is not entirely clear whether Mary is expecting it, but a lilting voice – familiar to her – is heard in the distance, followed by the appearance of Jacob Mercer (Joseph Potter), Snow’s former sweetheart who abruptly left a year before to try his luck in Toronto. Mary initially resolves to remain true to her current fiancé, Jerome McKenzie, rightly betraying the hurt caused by Jacob’s desertion.
Potter plays Jacob with a permanent, cocksure grin that borders on arrogance: an arrogance that is belied by an assured, commanding and loveable performance. Potter’s natural charisma allows us to forgive the character’s sometimes dated sentiments and sentimentality. Equally, Miller rescues her character from the downtrodden path she could have taken, and we get a real sense that, whoever wins, she is quite capable of giving as good as she gets. There is a deep sense of rivalry between Mary’s unseen fiancé and Jacob, the exposition of which cleverly places the piece in the context of the first world war. Without lecturing us, the emotional and traumatic fallout that the Newfoundlanders suffered is poignantly understated, yet vividly described through David French’s dialogue.
The dialogue drives the play which, on paper, is a challenging script. Potter and Miller certainly rise to the challenge, tackling the dynamics (and the accents) with ease and skilfully playing with French’s words to strike the right levels of emotion. A talented duo, they possess the art of listening to each other and reacting. It is an intuitive and astute performance, full of realism. Peter Kavanagh directs with the same authenticity – subtle yet magical. There is a loving attention to detail that gives us the larger picture, just as the occasional silences reinforce the narrative.
Although the play ends with an unresolved outcome, we are left in little doubt as to the answer to the ‘will-they-won’t-they’ question. Nevertheless, we do leave the theatre wanting to know what happens next. This makes sense, as “Salt-Water Moon” is the third play in a quartet that features the two protagonists. Yet it has the fullness of a stand-alone piece of writing that explores the nature of love, betrayal, patriotism, loss, forgiveness and loyalty. It revisits a bygone age and harks back to a former and sometimes forgotten spirit of theatre; quietly asserting its relevance. A slow burner, but one that burns bright.