Seawall is a one man play, and the one man is Alex, played by Henry Calcutt.
It’s one man, in one room, but the torrent of words spoken fold themselves into a full cast, an unseen ensemble of his wife Helen, the statuesque and venerated Arthur and the little daughter Lucy. Deballify’s production sets itself apart from other covid student-theatre I’ve seen by screening the performance live, shot in one single take. In between the intonations of Alex’s voice the disparate audience is pulled away from the red-brick walls that form his background and to the locations where the history of Alex’s life got snagged and changed at its root. The hospital in London where he took the title of ‘father’, the south of France where he lost it.
It’s no surprise that Alex then is a photographer, compelled by the ability to freeze an instant and look at it on his own terms.
“There’s a lie at the heart of photography… you are freezing something that’s actually alive. You need more than anything to believe in life.”
So much is said in so few words, I decide at first that he is meant to be dislikeable, an entitled man-child venerating the shrine of masculinity that he has fashioned from his father-in-law, Arthur. Minutes pass and Alex keeps speaking, holding my gaze through the screen; my opinion of him falls apart at the seams and I have to start again.
“There’s a hole running through the centre of my stomach. You must have all felt a bit awkward because you can probably see it… Most people pretend not to see it.”
With each confessional declaration, the character takes greater form, and the questions concerning what exactly has happened grow and grow. Expectations are continually built up, only to be disappointed. We think we’ve got a grip of where we’re going, what’s being alluded to and then everything shifts, it becomes not just a story of a crumbling marriage, or a strong male friendship, or a life without certainty, but of all of those things at once, and of the grief of a parent who can’t fathom the loss of a child. The text, the play, the narrative control that Alex tries to wield, is revealed to be the seawall, a barrier to hold back an encroaching and inevitable force of loss. It’s for this reason that Alex is interested in opposites, for this reason that Arthur, responsible for the death, resides in “the space between two numbers.”
“If there’s God, is he a man?” Alex asks Arthur. It seems as though the question that’s really being asked is if God is Arthur, or if they can pretend that he is, to make things make sense.
The play is shot live, which brings that same nervousness of knowing that mistakes will matter like in a pre-covid production. You can feel that pressure even through the screen and it combats the at times stultifying measured-ness that characterises the zoom-play format. It’s an ask too, a big one. I wonder if Henry is stressed, as he is scrutinised in real time from the comfort of people’s houses. If he was, he had no reason to be, from the first five minutes I’m hooked, and struggle to look away. Speaking of the death of his daughter “this bit of meat and air” I am surprised to feel tears in my eyes.
The play is written for Andrew Scott, and true, it shows. Henry imports that static nervous energy and tremulous mannerism that we have come to know and love in the soft-spoken Irish actor, though it is truly a testament to him that this emulation never quite becomes caricature. If the performance is slightly derivative, it’s hard to blame him- after all, the searing and beautiful writing of Simon Stephens was crafted around Scott, you read the script and his face looms large like an invisible shadow. There are stages, very brief stages, when Henry seems suddenly a little young for the role and his lilting intonation gets a little tired. On the whole though, it is stunning how much justice he does to the text, and how impressively he manages this very difficult production. Deballify productions took a great risk embarking on this theatre project and it’s certainly one that paid off, the result an elegant, emotionally powerful half-hour of stunningly memorable theatre.