Simon Stephens and Mark Eitzel collaborate to create a touching ensemble piece set in a run-down Brighton B&B. Locals will feel a particular frisson of pleasure at hearing Brighton pubs and locations name-checked in songs, but the themes are universal: the characters explore scenarios from first love to unrequited longing and the re-opening of old wounds. Whilst Stephens' characters are mostly down-at-heel and desperate, the play is both funny and moving and offers something very different from your average musical fare.
Marine Parade is a wonderful surprise, not least because it brings some bona fide theatre to the Old Market. The Bryson Hall proved an ideal space, with the play performed in the round and the actors often intimately close to the audience. Subtly, the outside was brought in, with the foot of the stage awash with beach pebbles and the sounds of waves, seagulls and seafront traffic quietly permeating the venue.
Stephens' ensemble piece weaves together separate but inter-related strands, allowing the audience to draw parallels and detect echoes between the relationships depicted. The linking device is its primary location - a low-rent hotel - and its proprieter Steve and the woman he is in love with, Sally. On one day at the close of the summer, we meet the various people staying at the hotel as well as a man Steve chances to meet during the day. They comprise a (very) young couple who've absconded to Brighton to escape parental disapproval and prying friends; a middle-aged couple, returning to Brighton and confronted with memories of a dirty weekend spent there twenty years ago; a lonely older man who spends his solitary days sea-gazing on Marine Parade, and a troubled and desperate young women and the former boyfriend who she has drawn back into her world.
Love is at the centre of the play, in its various forms, from the rush and excitement of first-time sex to the difficulty and strain of sustaining a long-term relationship. One of the play's most successful strands depicts a twenty-year-plus relationship corroded by a deep vein of unease running murmurously through it from the very beginning; Thusitha Jayasundera and Michael Gould powerfully illustrate the precariousness of happiness, when a misjudged and mistimed comment can shatter a jubilant mood and rupture the evening's festivities.
This is more muted that most conventional musicals, but with that more genuine and affecting too. Eitzel stated in an interview with The Times earlier this month that 'the whole musical theatre instinct is kind of a drag'. His distrust of the form comes through in the show's tendency to present its songs in a stripped-down, understated fashion, with one character taking the lead vocal in each song and the others providing delicately complimentary harmonies. The songs are unshowy, and are extremely effective at revealing the vulnerabilities of the characters; when Kate O'Flynn's Sally vocalises her longing to escape life as a cleaner in Brighton for university in Newcastle, she sings through tears, struggling to get the words out. The cast tackle the songs bravely and impressively, in particular Cynthia Erivo whose strong voice reverberates joyfully through the hall. Eitzel takes lead vocals on two songs, but otherwise remains at the back of the stage with the rest of the highly talented live band.
Marine Parade is a triumph, for theatre company Animalink and for Eitzel and Stephens. For two men who mistrust musicals, they have turned out a very fine one indeed.
Reviewed by DW 21/5/10