Two’s Company’s efforts to revive long-forgotten classics continue at Southwark Playhouse with A Day by the Sea. The play, written by N.C. Hunter, heralded as the “English Chekhov”, but shamefully overlooked in his day, arrives in the wake of several other successful productions by the company in recent years, namely What the Women Did (2014), The Cutting of the Cloth (2015) and The Fifth Column (2016).
Set in Dorset on an idyllic summer’s day in 1953, the play focuses on the Anson family. Julian Anson, a diplomat based in Paris, is taking time out of his work-orientated existence to visit his parents at the original family home. He is surprised to find an old childhood friend also visiting with her children and trying to recover from a scandal concerning her marriage. Julian’s mother has always wished he would settle down and marry, but he scornfully resists. The family plan a day out for a picnic on the beach which, rather than offer Julian the relaxation it should, serves only to provide the backdrop for unexpected disappointment.
Act One sets the scene, and, initially, things moved a little slowly with a few bungled lines, awkward pauses and late sound cues. Everything felt a little bit dated, with the script seeming to meander along aimlessly and the odd topical political quip and comment about war and “the ridiculousness of men” forming the only real connections between the piece and modern life. By the interval, l was a little concerned that this revival was no contender for some of the company’s earlier work, both in terms of the material on offer and the production itself.
Everything perked up enormously for Act Two, however, with the actors seeming to find their confidence and/or overcome nerves, and the action becoming pacier and moving from situation-building to the outpouring of raw emotion and regret, with the sea setting the scene for confession and proposition.
John Sackville’s austere Julian who, having just faced a monumental blow to his career, begins to reflect on a life which has, until now, been dedicated to work. He laments lost opportunities, articulating the real Chekhovian feelings of loss and lack of fulfilment to which we can all relate. This results in a somewhat awkward exchange between he and Alix Dunmore’s serene Frances Farrar, who delivers a fine central performance, managing to combine detachment and humility throughout. Their situation is comically mirrored by Stephanie Willson’s pitiful Miss Mathieson, the childrens’ Nanny, who, seemingly terrified of becoming an ‘old maid’ embarrasses herself terribly with Doctor Farley (played humorously by David Acton).
The play is a little long, but, once it gets going, deals sensitively and openly with the human condition. Combined with the excellent comic timing of Susan Tracy’s Mrs Anson, the numerous amusing interjections of Davids Acton, Gooderson and Whitworth and Alex Marker’s lovely set, this isn’t a bad evening’s entertainment at all.