Red Sea Fish
nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
November 8, 2009
Red Sea Fish is a deceptively direct play about human failings that, given an attuned, empathetic ear, can prove satisfyingly difficult and highly rewarding. In a sparse tower block flat in an unspecified town on England's South Coast, a retired thief wallows in past glories while attended to by his simple son; the thief, Ray, suffers from a rare skin condition, and as such is confined by day to a room with heavy drapes and zero exposure to the sun. Ray and his son, Terry, affect an intriguing housebound relationship based on codependency and subtle manipulation. When Terry invites a gamesome runaway into their flat, her alluring presence triggers a series of cat-and-mouse machinations resulting in pained revelations.
Red Sea Fish has been compared favorably to Steptoe and Son (the U.K. forebear of Sanford and Son), though aesthetically the play has greater resemblance to a Guy Ritchie film or the plays of Martin McDonagh (with a smattering of Chuck Palahniukian sensibility, minus the quease-factor). Playwright Matt Wilkinson's dialogue is clever enough to zing and pop with blase cool, yet seems thoroughly authentic. Ray's stories as a member of the criminal underground don't sound like dramatized gangster patter: His adventures ring true, a crucial reason why this savvy play works as well as it does.
Wilkinson has co-directed this production with Franklyn McCabe. The staging is sharp and minimal, offering little in the way of grand gestures or broad theatrics; such restraint works nicely, allowing the tension in the room to mount at an increasingly breakneck pace. Wilkinson and McCabe get powerful performances from their ensemble of three. As Ray, Tim Blissett is almost preternaturally still and strong, allowing his gruff features and steady voice to conjure a sense of toying menace and fragile history. Matthew Houghton is equally compelling as Terry, who proves himself far more complex and forceful than one is initially led to believe. And Janna Fox injects a dangerous femininity into the proceedings: The role of Karen could easily be overwhelmed by the amount of masculine cock-swaggering taking place, were it not for Fox's wise and generous performance.
Red Sea Fish is being presented by 59E59 Theatres as part of their 2009 Brits Off Broadway series. The play has been imported by Brighton-based Two Bins Theatre (of which Blissett, Fox, and Houghton are associate artists), a collective "dedicated to producing work that is dynamic, modern, and quintessentially British." In this they have succeeded, perhaps ever slightly too much so in this New York presentation: The language is densely populated with the rough slang of three working-class Brits, and the accents are—I presume—real, meaning that, at times, a concerted effort may be required on the part of untrained American ears to follow the rich, nuanced text.
Red Sea Fish is thrilling and intelligent, and offers a slam-bang finish, including a brief flash of unexpected violence that, if it's not real, I know not how it was achieved. Fans of edgier British fare rejoice: A young and vibrant voice awaits discovery at 59E59.