On the Shore of the Wide World

On the Shore of the Wide World
By Simon Stephens. Pants Guys / Griffin Independent. SBW Stables Theatre (NSW). January 8 – February 1, 2014.

As a director, Anthony Skuse continues to impress! Whether on the open stage space at ATYP or the tight confines of The Stables Theatre, his direction brings the play and the audience into almost immediate affinity. In this production, he finds strong empathy with the playwright, and the intricate web of characters and relationships he has created – and he communicates this skillfully through his committed and talented cast.

Simon Stephens’ play follows a family through nine months of love and heartache. It is a long play, yet it is so cleverly written and so tightly directed that time is almost suspended as the audience moves with the characters through a myriad of scenes that expose and delineate their strengths and failings, their secrets and fears.

Though the play is set in Stockport, England – and Skuse has stuck meticulously to the original setting and accents – the Holmes family and the dilemmas they face could be any family, anywhere. Hence audience members can identify with them and, through Skuse’s careful development of the characters, percipient choreography and tightly paced scene changes, become intimately involved in their lives.

In crafting the play, Stephens uses events and their resulting effects to peel away layers of his characters, exposing raw emotion and hurt. The intimacy that this reveals to the audience is heightened in this production by out-of-scene actors remaining on stage at the edges of the action. Always in character, they follow the scene intently, their eyes and faces betraying their reactions to what they see and hear. This deeper dimension to the action is very demanding of the actors.

To this end, Skuse has chosen his cast well. Kate Fitzpatrick, Paul Bertram, Huw Higginson and Amanda Stephens-Lee bring the weight of their broad experience as the Holmes family ‘elders’. Graeme McRae, Alex Beauman and Lily Newbury-Freeman play the young people in their lives.

Huw Higginson is immensely believable as Peter Holmes, husband, father, son and craftsman. Higginson’s intimate understanding of the character reveals itself through beautifully timed hesitancy, bubbling but controlled anger and heart-breaking anguish.

As Alice, his wife, Amanda Stephens-Lee is also strong. She is charmingly natural  as the working mother of two teenage sons, but as events bear down upon her, we see her control visibly unraveling. Even in repetitive, monosyllabic responses, she manages to dig deeply into the agony and pain Alice is experiencing.

Graeme McRae is Alex, the elder of their two sons. He’s 18, easy going, in love for the first time. McRae finds all the lovable aspects of Alex’s character - his nonchalant reactions to his parents; his naïve acceptance of others; his developing realisation of his feelings for his girlfriend Sarah; and eventually, his need to escape.

Recent NIDA graduate Lily Newbury-Freeman is refreshingly real as Sarah. Her fast reactions and restlessness contrast with the more easy-going Holmes family. She is cheeky, suggestive, inquisitive, edgy – and very likeable.

New to the professional stage (he graduated from high school in 2012), Alex Beauman plays Christopher Holmes, the 15 year old younger son. This is a beautifully written role and Beauman plays it just as beautifully. His reactions are carefully timed, stunningly real and appealingly funny.

Kate Fitzpatrick and Paul Bertram are Peter’s parents, Ellen and Charlie. Theirs is a relationship fraught with underlying resentments. Fitzpatrick keeps Ellen’s emotions under such tight physical control that the strain almost engulfs her. Away from Ellen, Bertram’s Charlie mostly bumbles through a generous, alcoholic haze – far different from a menacing scene with Ellen.

The other characters who touch upon the family’s lives bring deeper insights. Susan Reynolds (Emma Palmer) employs Peter to restore her home. University educated, working in publishing, she and Peter become friends – and confidants. Palmer underplays this character cleverly making the unlikeliness of their friendship quite plausible.

Jacob Warner plays Alex’s friend Paul. In one short scene, Warner shows the edginess and instability of Paul’s character in constant movement, jerky gestures and whinnying pleas. A sharp contrast to the role of John Robinson, played by Alistair Wallace. To elaborate on this role would give away too much of the plot. Suffice to say, Wallace is convincing in his few, short scenes.

Billed as a family saga, this play covers nine short months in the lives of the Holmes family, but, as with any family, one unforeseeable event can trigger unimaginable reactions. Stephens’ writing, Skuse’s direction and the talented cast make this production one which has palpable appeal.

Carol Wimmer

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