[The following contains spoilers.]
Alchemist Theatre’s “Sealand” is currently playing at the Pleasance Zoo. Rather than being a single hour long drama, “Sealand” would be much more satisfying as a BBC sitcom from the 1980s. Every week Luke Clarke’s characters would have to deal with a new predicament. There would be catchy theme music. You could learn to love these characters and grow comfortable with their established patterns of behaviour. Yet “Sealand” has greater aspirations for its characters and they are unwisely obliged to venture beyond comedy.
Floating on an abandoned sea fort out in the North Sea, these characters – the impatient adults and dissatisfied teenagers who are familiar from any sitcom – bicker like a family who are trapped together on a long car journey. Yet this is actually the ongoing life of a new nation and the journey has no apparent destination. The title a self-evident contradiction, Sealand has been set up as an alternative to “Broken Britain,” but its five citizens have brought along the same alienated youth, binge drinking, and failed authority figures which had beset the old one. Even a lawyer will turn up to obstruct everything and annoy everybody.
Every idealistic community in fiction has ended badly, from Blithedale Farm onwards. This would be truly an original play if the new community had got on fine without any troubles, but it might not say very much about the human condition. In any case, Sealand dissents from the standard utopian community in that its people are not remotely utopian. They want simply to be rid of Britain.
The only character with any positive initiative at all, the sixteen year old Sarah (who is played superbly by Jess Stone) just wants to party and have sex. She is a good kid but she is minded to destroy everything that she comes across. She looks like a dishevelled Tellytubby in her Sealand overalls, but she occasionally emerges from this chrysalis dressed to kill. Her unhappy confidante, Alex (Ed Pinker), is a geeky but rueful kid, who is mostly too shrewd to fall for her. When Sarah tries to rehabilitate the father who has failed her (Seamus Bradford), the play grows as sober as this erstwhile alcoholic. It slows everything down, but this storyline gives an impression of supplying depth or making the story seem more complete than if it was just played for laughs.
Sarah creates endless fun by teasing Alex and winding up her poor mother (Janet Etuk). After Sealand is declared a sovereign nation, the unattended teenagers invite over some friends and the new nation is trashed in an almighty party. The play’s comedy is always very funny, but it is used too sparingly. And if Sealand is seen increasingly from Sarah’s perspective, the other characters begin to fade into the sea fog.
The community’s enigmatic founding father, Ted (Dan Ainsworth) is strong enough to resist a sexual attack from Sarah, but his methodical determination goes out of the window at the end of the play. We may at first appreciate the final clever twist in the plot, but it leaves us wondering how Ted could really make such a mistake (ie in being caught). His secret should be sleeping with the fishes. The only answer seems to be that we do not know him as well as we thought we did. We may also wonder why the teenagers did not discover his secret during their party, when Sealand would be naturally ransacked for alcohol. It also seems to compromise the plot that Sarah’s friends just happen to suddenly have a boat, after Sarah has spent half the play moaning that she is exiled on Sealand.
They should have stuck to comedy. A comedy is always innocent – you can forgive a bit of cock and bull in a comedy, just as you would indulge the prattling of children. But with tragedy this production is all at sea.