It’s always good to see a new talent emerging and in James McDermott that is clearly and pleasingly what we have. Although his new play Time and Tide at the Park Theatre is often intentionally low key it is heartfelt and, at times, heart rending as it examines the hidden lives of four inhabitants of a British seaside town towards the end of the summer season.
For many, Cromer in Norfolk would not be the obvious choice for a dramatic location but coming from that area McDermott has a clear understanding of the everyday lives, concerns and speech rhythms of people living and working in a town that is slowly closing in and simultaneously closing down. May’s Caff (and it is a caff as opposed to a café) at the end of the pier is geographically exposed to the ravages of the North Sea while the people who work there are battered by inner turmoil of their own. The title – taken from the well-known proverb – hints that decisions will have to be taken sooner or later before choices get swept away by natural progress.
The eponymous May has spent the best years of her life looking after her dying mother and is now caught between using her inheritance to spruce up the business and moving (almost unthinkably) all the way to Suffolk to start a new life. Her business is caught in a struggle for trade with the ubiquitous chain store coffee houses – indeed we significantly never see any customers. At the same time her personal life is going nowhere. Rather she is buoyed up by her slight obsession with Bette Davis and memories of wishing to be a professional dancer. Small wonder that she actively encourages her assistant Nemo to make the break and go to drama school in “that London”. Nemo – real name Neil Morrisey but he wants to avoid confusion – has come out but is uneasy about taking things any further in somewhere he regards as a provincial backwater. Both the other caff assistant Daz and bread delivery man Ken are carrying torches for Nemo and May respectively and are struggling with whether to declare their hands before the objects of their affection move on. Each character, therefore, has, to varying degrees, hidden depths and the events of the bleak Monday portrayed will bring resolution, of a sort, to all.
Time and Tide has been well cast with all four actors (Wendy Nottingham, Paul Easom, Josh Barrow and Elliot Liburd) creating meaningful and believable characters. If acting honours go to the two younger members of the cast that is probably because their story has the more interesting trajectory. I’m not sure of the origins of the quartet but managing a Norfolk accent without descending into caricature is a feat in itself and while I can’t swear to 100% accuracy it was sufficient to make it convincing.
The setting in the confined space of Park 90 was very well realised by Caitlin Abbott creating a sense of claustrophobia against which the characters were struggling. The running gag (and metaphor for entrapment) created by the caff’s front door refusing to budge was particularly effective. This was enhanced by Martha Godfrey’s lighting design, especially in the second half as the rainstorm came and went. Fizz Margereson’s soundscape was very successful in reminding us that here were characters metaphorically all at sea. Despite one or two awkwardnesses of positioning the whole was very ably directed by Rob Ellis who highlighted the underlying issues, brought out the inherent humour and maintained a sense of poignancy throughout.
I have to confess I found the writing and pacing a little slow to start with – though to be fair that was in keeping with the piece – and I was concerned that events were going to decline into cliché. However, the skill of writing/acting/direction was to gradually make us care about these seemingly mundane lives. In the exchanges between May and Ken I found myself reminded of Victoria Wood’s DinnerLadies – that is meant as a compliment – and the delivery man’s musings on why our local high streets are being turned into corporate wastelands certainly struck a chord. The appearance of Daz in the latter stages of the first half lifts the whole piece to another level for here is someone with real hidden depths (“May says you’re like the sea…Calm on the surface…But lots going on underneath”) and so it proves. Daz can’t admit to Nemo that he doesn’t want his mate to go and leave him behind…in fact he can’t even admit it to himself, or why. The pair’s protracted scene where they skirt round the real issues was, for me, at the heart of the play. And if I was again reminded of another classic sitcom – The Likely Lads – that is also meant as a compliment. Their story reaches a (literally) climactic moment in Act 2 and the sense of release the characters experience helps them to move on. Meanwhile May and Ken seemed destined to settle for the status quo.
Although there were points where the writing seemed a trifle uneven, Time and Tide provides a good showcase for McDermott’s burgeoning talents and it is good to see Park Theatre and Relish Theatre supporting the development of such a promising writer. I have to say it also made a very pleasant change to see a play which, for once, finishes with some sense of optimism. While the play hasn’t made me want to rush off to Cromer anytime soon, it has made me think twice about switching away from the corporates to more independent traders. It is impossible to think of bland chain stores like Costa and Nandos hiding such hidden depths of emotion though it might make an interesting companion piece for McDermott to explore. And I’ll even throw in a free title taken from another proverb – Familiarity breeds contempt. Over to you James!