The Theatreguide.London Review
On the Shore of the Wide World
Cottesloe Theatre Summer 2005
Simon Stephens' new play is a model domestic drama, an introduction to the little lives and little pains of little people, that slowly (perhaps too slowly) draws you in and makes you feel the reality and understand something important about life.
It is overlong, and its earnestness occasionally crosses the line into tediousness. But it is worth sticking with, and may actually be the best new play of the season.
The title, from a Keats sonnet, reverberates in a number of different directions. It suggests both the beginning of life's adventure and the end of it, both being on a dangerous precipice and being far from the centre of things. And all of these implications are reflected in the play.
The story centres on three generations of a northern family. Grandfather and grandmother barely communicate as he drifts into alcoholism. Father and mother try desperately to communicate as they drift apart. And their teenage sons begin to drift away as sons must.
In the course of the play one character dies, another has a brush with death, and several relationships come close to breaking. And one of Stephens' most impressive insights is that there is no simple cause-and-effect to it all.
Yes, that shocking death shakes everyone, but at most it is the occasion for fault lines that were already there to come out. Yes, more than one character is tempted to stray, but it is not so much because of the attraction of another as of the frailty of the bond holding them back.
And the play's other big discovery is that personalities are stronger than the fault lines within them and bonds stronger than their weakest links.
It is possible, even probable, that you will continue to love someone even when you don't particularly like them at the moment, and what holds families and marriages together is something larger than anyone can verbalise or identify.
That may not be major news, but it is still a deeply moving vision of life, and the strength of Stephens' play, Sarah Frankcom's direction and the performances of a uniformly excellent cast is that they do make you feel and believe in it.
The weakness of both play and production, as I suggested, is that they take their time establishing this world and these characters to the point that you can feel and accept the playwright's vision.
You may find the first half heavy going, but stick with the play and let yourself be drawn into it, and you will find this one of the most emotionally involving and satisfying dramas in a long time.
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Review of On The Shore Of The Wide World - National Theatre 2005