Theatre review: Lost At Sea, Perth Theatre

The first thing that catches the attention about Ian Brown’s impressive Perth Theatre production of Morna Young’s Lost At Sea, is its sheer visual power. Set on a dark stage with little furniture – but lit with great subtlety by Katharine Williams – Karen Tennant’s design is dominated by a backdrop of screens full of monochrome images of a great, towering, shifting sea. Sometimes they are only glimpsed in part, sometimes they seem set to engulf the stage; but always, they make an eloquent statement about what is to live a life dominated by the sea.

Lost at Sea starring, l-r: Sophia McLean, Gerry Mulgrew, Ali Craig, Andy Clark, Thoren Ferguson and Tam Dean Burn PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic
Lost at Sea starring, l-r: Sophia McLean, Gerry Mulgrew, Ali Craig, Andy Clark, Thoren Ferguson and Tam Dean Burn PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

Lost At Sea, Perth Theatre ****

Morna Young’s play is based on her own efforts to understand more about the death of her own father, a Burghead fisherman lost at sea in 1989, when she was five; and in a sense, the range of themes she uncovers is almost too wide for a single drama. There is the tension between her fictional character’s search for truth – she is a journalist – and the ingrained reticence of a community which has learned over centuries how to swallow its grief and to move on.

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There is the never-ending struggle to maintain fragile fishing communities, and the temptation many British fishermen faced in the boom years of 1975-95, when there was huge money to be made working long trips in dangerous conditions. There is the way the EU quota system became commercialised in the UK, creating huge tensions within fishing communities; and of course, there is the timeless battle with the sea itself.

What emerges from Young’s journey is therefore something almost more like a chorale than a conventional drama; a sequence of fictional scenes inspired by her quest, set against a backdrop of intense community life brilliantly conjured up by a superb nine-strong ensemble cast, led by Sophia McLean as the writer, Shona, and Tam Dean Burn as an almost mythical Captain-figure.

The musical texture of the piece, created by composer Pippa Murphy, is full of echoes of hymns and folk song, all brilliantly performed, and culminating – like Perth Theatre’s last full main-stage production, The 306 Dusk – in a great litany of mourning and loss; and with Ali Craig and Andy Clark turning in intense performances as Shona’s lost dad and his surviving brother, Ian Brown’s superb production, his first in Scotland for more than a decade, emphasises this play’s powerful lineage in silence-breaking working-class drama about untold Scottish lives, stretching back to his own great 1990s production of Bondagers, and far beyond. - JOYCE MCMILLAN

Perth Theatre until 4 May; then on tour to Dundee, Aberdeen, Greenock, Inverness, Edinburgh and Dumfries, until 24 May.