Sea Life: Interview with Director Matthew Parker

The Hope Theatre has always been ‘a little theatre of big ideas’ and this year, it embarks on a new, big adventure. For the first time, the Hope will have a season of in-house productions, starting with Sea Life directed by the theatre’s Artistic Director Matthew Parker. With rehearsals under way, Matthew took some time to sit down and talk to me about this exciting time and this production.

Congratulations on your inaugural in-house season. Can you tell us a bit about what we can expect ahead?

Thank you! We did our first in-house production last year, Lovesong of the Electric Bear, which went incredibly well. We thought we’d do two productions in 2015, but following its success and West End transfer, those plans changed.

This year, I proposed a couple of shows to our trustees and they said let’s look at three very different things. We had a few things on the table, the first being Sea Life. It was written in 2000, so it’s not new writing. But it’s only been performed once since then in Bristol and never before in London. Then for summer we have Steel Magnolias, which will prove a very exciting time. And at Christmas, we’ll be staging Bryony Lavery’s Her Aching Heart in a 25th anniversary production. I have always wanted to do this show, ever since I first saw that at university years ago…I won’t reveal just how long ago that was! Aside from this season, we also have a lot of new writing coming up and some established writers too…those aren’t on sale yet, so watch this space!


And you’ve just started rehearsals for the first of those, Sea Life. How have they been going?

Really well – touch wood! We rehearse over two and a half weeks with a small team as it’s a three-hander. I’ve never directed a three hander before – everything’s been larger casts or solo  – it’s a very intimate and intense rehearsal experience.

The play all takes place in one location, a seaside pub-come-bar on a cliff edge overlooking the sea, except for one moment when we come out of the room. The pub is run by three siblings, twins and their older brother. During the day they run the pub, but they have no customers. So to bring a bit of money in, the council pay them to dig up bodies and cremate them…it’s a very dark comedy! It has an emotional side to it though. The family is dealing with the suicide of their mother, who they know sooner or later they’re going to have to dig up and cremate too.

It’s great to work with these people as well. My good friend actor-producer-designer Laura Harling is our designer and she’s been at my house, building coffins! I know the three actors very well too. I met Vicky Gaskin at drama school and I’ve always wanted to work with her, so this project came at the right time. Chris [Levens] was in our production of Lovesong of the Electric Bear last year, which he won Best Supporting Actor Off West End Award for and it’s great to have him back. Jack Harding is a cracking actor who I first saw in a show at The Hope last year and immediately popped him on a mental list to hopefully work with at some point in the future. He’s a very dynamic and passionate actor which suits the character of Eddie, the older brother, perfectly.

Left to right: Jack Harding, Chris Levens, and Vicky Gaskin.

It sounds like grief is a key theme in this production. What else are you hoping to draw out through your direction?

Grief certainly features heavily and I’m interested in how we deal with it, particularly as British people. The play refers to ‘being British’ a lot and I’m interested in harking back to the late Victorian/Edwardian idea of what it is to be British. It is set in a British seaside resort, but with no British tourists, so Roberta fills the day talking about how wonderful the idea of family and the ‘golden age’. I’m looking forward to playing with this theme with her character, putting on voices and costumes which scream British-good-old-days!

The other side of it is how we deal with grief in different ways. There are lots of moments about that in the play and Eddie has a lot of quotes on how death is dealt with in other cultures. There’s existentialism present as well in terms of death, that life just finishes. The writer Lucy Catherine is a remarkable woman and she’s very impassioned about exploring just how toxic the funeral business actually is.

Of course, I still want to bring out the comedy in the script. It’s very dark, but very comedic! That’s something I’m very interested in, ever since I first started directing at 19, when things are funny but awkward.


What appealed to you about this absurd genre of plays, absurdism?

My first time on stage was when I was five, in pantos and musicals. When I went to university at 18, I did an acting degree and I studied non-traditional theatre. We studied the playwright Eugene Ionesco and it completely blew my mind, I actually did a one man show using Ionesco’s language! He’s a master of the theatre of the absurd, his writing is heart crunching but also so embarrassing. Those things have really interested me, like The League of Gentlemen. And I think it’s a recognisably British thing, that comedy of embarrassment.

I also like giving audiences a choice: is it tragedy? Is it comedy? Is it okay to laugh? I like to have a choice of how I as an audience member react. In my very early years in the industry, I took against the idea of taking audiences on one single journey: at this point they laugh, at this point they cry. An audience is made up of individuals, who’ll have their own individual reactions. Theatre is a communal event, particularly in the round at the Hope. I want someone to be laughing and the person next to them thinking, ‘Oh, you sick cow!’

Source: The Hope Theatre

And finally, how does Sea Life fit with the Hope, both in terms of the space and its mission as a ‘small theatre of big ideas’?

Oh, good question! Venue wise, it’s three sides but we’re using it in a size and way we’ve never done before at the Hope…that’s all I’m going to say! It all take place in a single location of the pub, so it’s reasonably naturalistic. To compare, Lovesong of the Electric Bear had about 47 different things! And it’s a three hander, so it’s incredibly intimate which is what the Hope does so well. It affects the audience and you feel connected, almost close enough to touch. The space is great at evoking that visceral reaction.

In terms of being ‘a little theatre of big ideas’, it’s one little seaside pub, a domestic setting for a dark comedy. It’s about how these three deal with one another and all their dark secrets and jealousies and anger and love. But then it has a much bigger overarching theme. It really has that fin de siècle feel, as it was written in 2000. The cliffs the play takes place on are crumbling away, much like British identity in the play. Gone is the ‘golden age’ of Queen Victoria and tea and cricket; that’s literally being dug up and burned.

And when you look at the BREXIT debate and what it means to be British now, it’s very relevant. I grew up in the 80’s when I feel our sense of national identity was smashed to smithereens under Thatcher’s rule.  From the late 90s onwards we managed to rebuild our national identity as a nation outwardly looking with a world wide view, which is fantastic – just look at the success and brilliance of the 2012 Olympics. But politics has taken a turn for the nasty and Britishness and celebrating what it means has started to have a xenophobic, Daily Mail-y feel. A closing ranks in on ourselves. Terrifying really. That theme is really brought to light in the play – I bet at least one of the characters would vote UKIP!

Overall, it really does speak to a lot of people: life, death and family, three things everyone can relate to.

Sea Life will be playing from 24th May – 11th June 2016 at the Hope Theatre. For more information and to buy tickets, visit The Hope Theatre website. To keep up with the latest news, follow them on Twitter or Facebook.


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