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The Water’s Edge

by on 8 November 2021

Ripples of a Past

The Water’s Edge

by Theresa Rebeck

The Questors, at the Questors Studio, Ealing until 13th November

Review by Claire Alexander

‘Leaving you here was a mistake’, says Richard at one point in the second half of The Water’s Edge.  Indeed it was.

Richard has unexpectedly turned up to find his ex-wife (well not ‘ex-wife’ as it turns out in a small twist of the plot) and his two, now adult, children none of whom he has seen in seventeen years.  The children are now in their mid-twenties.  His ‘wife’ is angry and lonely and it soon becomes clear living on the edge, not only of a lake, but also of insanity.  The setting in contrast to these fractured family relationships is an idyllic but dilapidated and faded cottage on the shore.  The director, Lucy Aley Parker, has chosen to set this production in Cumbria although it was probably written for back-country Massachusetts, America.  But this seems to work and makes the play more impactful by being closer to home.

The cataclysmic event seventeen years ago was that the couple’s child Leah (we assume youngest, though we are never told) drowned in the lake one tragic day.  Helen and Richard, the two parents have never been able to forgive each other, even talk to each other about this terrible tragedy, and Helen has always blamed Richard thinking that he had taken his eyes off his daughter while having an affair with a lady who had moved in to a nearby cottage.  Seventeen years of grief and resentment are played out.

And to throw into this uncomfortable mix we should not overlook that Richard has brought his ‘latest’ girlfriend with him who is not much older than his daughter.

Indeed this is really a play about how the various members of the family have handled their grief and their lives since.  Richard was sent packing by his barely coherent ‘wife’ soon after and was never allowed to see his children again as they grew up.  He has at least found some way to move on with his life and has clearly been successful and made some money.  Helen, on the other hand, has clearly lived on the edge of everything ever since and has kept her children close to her, especially her son Nate, in a desperate attempt to protect herself.  Nate is especially damaged, barely able to string a sentence together and there were some haunting detail in his performance of his unhealthy relationship with his mother.  Erica, the younger sister, has at least escaped to University but has returned home as she tried vainly to hold her mother and brother together.   Hence the line I referred to ‘leaving you here was a mistake’ as Helen has lived in a sort of ‘Miss Havisham like’ suspended animation ever since.  It is clear that barely anything in the garden where the play is set has changed or moved in seventeen years.

All of this becomes evident in the first half of the play and I will not spoil the horrifying twist of the second half by revealing it here, lest I spoil it for readers whom I encourage to go to this production – suffice to say it brought an audible gasp from the audience.

I am not sure this play said anything that new about dysfunctional family relationships, or grief, or unbearable tragedy, or revenge, but it was compelling nevertheless. Theresa Rebeck’s dialogue captures some very powerful emotions very skilfully and without over labouring things.   You never quite knew where your sympathies lay: with Helen who has never been able to move on from anger and hatred, waking up every morning to the view of the lake; to Nate who in some ways carries the guilt of the entire family; or Richard who has tried in many ways to bury the past, but has come back to try and bury the demons.

It is therefore the details that make this production successful – one of the most tender scenes was between Richard and Erica, as he tries to get to know his estranged daughter by giving her a pair of expensive earrings, which could not be a more inappropriate present.  And, as I alluded, to the desperate relationship between Nate and his mother as he tries tragically to make up for his sister’s drowning in any little way he can.  At points you even wonder if he was responsible.

It was well performed.  Personally I particularly liked Paul James as Richard, who gave a measured, understated and genuine performance as the central character, who led us to the possibility that his way of coping with grief was no less desperate or genuine than the rest of his family.  Perhaps more nervousness from him at the beginning as he arrives at the cottage to see his estranged family would have been more impactful.  Lisa Day, in the challenging role as tortured Helen, gave a committed performance – personally I found her introspective scenes as she reflects on her memories of that terrible day more truthful than the seventeen years of hate unleashed on Richard.   Questors have found a fearless actor in Sam Ebner-Landy, in an honest portrayal of the almost incoherent Nate, which he sustained convincingly throughout. As Erica, Nicola Ditter, valiantly trying to hold things together but at her strongest in the touching scenes with her father and brother. As Richard’s new girlfriend, Lucy, Clare Purdy, has a quiet stillness as she watches the maelstrom unfold, and never tempted to overplay the role of outsider.  

As director, Lucy Aley Parker has created a strong sense of time, place and family, and how the drowning has affected all the individuals concerned, which runs strongly throughout the whole production.  And I cannot finish without a comment on the stunning set by Philip Lindley, and everyone else involved in design, which really contributed to the atmosphere.  I really could see myself on the shores of a Lake District lake.

The final tableau of Helen and her two children was a fitting end – we finished as we started, and the cycle of grief and guilt goes on.  It was idyllic and horrifying in one breath, almost as though the nightmare had never happened?  You will have to go to the production to find out!

Claire Alexander, November 2021

Photography by Evelina Plonyte

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