If there exists a smell for the forsaken, the audience experiences it as they take their seats at this award-winning work from Pither Productions.

An aroma of blight, degradation, and rot greets the nasal passages upon arrival. I only hope this effect is a deliberate assault on the olfactory system from the production team and not a slight against the venue. In any case, the ambience is so well established that an audience member may be fooled into smelling the dregs of profound gloom. Sea shanties are heard in the ghostly distance and a catalogue of creaks and groans are omnipresent, as if the whole environment is about to collapse. The minimalist confines of the theatre space above the Old Red Lion Pub works to the story’s advantage, an inky black subsuming any note of character or feature. The disintegrating souls of the marooned Captain and his steward stand in stark relief against a basic set of tightly-wound white canvasses suggesting masts and functional furnishings. On the table lit with an unearthly glow is the last vestige of salt water, a final link to the sea and identity for the two men. The colossal vessel which holds the holy liquid takes on a mesmeric quality for the characters. 

Outside, some cataclysmic event has wiped the sea of water. The men are stranded on the bottom of the ocean floor. Supplies are dwindling, minds fracturing. Their visages carry the strain of their existence, haggard and haunted. To keep even the modicum of sanity, the captain and steward assert the rituals of their hierarchical relationship. Its consistency and familiarity are a balm, a warding off of the terrors of the unknown and the incoherent. 

Into this tightly desperate performance happens a mysterious man claiming to be a whaler. Intrigued by his story of brave journey through the dangers of the outside environment, the men politely but tentatively offer him shelter. With the most straightforward of questioning, he starts a campaign of discord and dismantlement, reaching inside each man’s head to undermine assumption. He sweats casual menace. With the sea removed, and any need for the men to conform to strict class behaviour, what is left as framing device in their lives? Is either man capable of redefinition? 

As the play progresses, the man takes on a less corporeal presence. He may indeed be an apparition birthed in the fevered mind of the steward as an agent to effect change that neither man is prepared to enact personally. Caleb O’Brien as Man has the charisma of a dissolute rock star, able to spellbind both men into his particular orbit. Andrew Callaghan’s Captain is grandiloquent excess so pompously certain of his entitlement and authority. Jack Flammiger as Garson (the only character with a proper name) is the most in crisis clinging with decreasing grasp to the conviction that his life of servitude has been honourable and rewarding. The much-maligned mutiny of the rest of the crew, seen as a violation of loyalty against the captain, perhaps was a sane act in regards to a faltering, arrogant leader. The man teases out a murderous vein of resentment and confusion from Garson that eventually explodes. A climactic action reads as either anointment or a peculiar case of hydro-immolation. Whether the gesture will bring about a restoration of order or is an absolute surrender to chaos is left to the viewer’s interpretation. 

Writer Nina Atesh (who won the 2021 London Horror Playwriting competition) maintains a satisfying balance between the existential dread of the script’s quiet philosophical inquisitions and the foundational requirements of a spooky tale never allowing either approach to dominate. In this, she is greatly assisted by director Chloe Cattin. The production is pacy, electric, thoughtful, with atmosphere to spare. It’s entirely possible to emerge with both the intellect and senses (thanks to Julia Sullivan’s brilliant stage design) humming.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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