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The Harbour
Published on Wednesday, 18 August 2010

4 stars

The Zoo (venue website)
Dance and Physical Theatre
6 - 30 Aug (not 11,16,17,24), 4:45pm (5:35pm)
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

Were you led blindfold into the theatre for the opening scene of this play, you might still guess it’s called The Harbour.  The lights are blue; the backdrop’s draped with nets; fishing crates fill the centre of the stage.  Three seafarers stand, more than a little menacing, anonymous in their matching oilskins.

Even the cellist – whose playing and vocals are a big part of this show – is sporting a set of waterproofs.  But if the setting’s a familiar one, the tale is not; drawing on Scottish folklore, the story tells of a seal who becomes human when she sheds her skin.  One day, she’s caught in the net of a fishing boat… and comes to fall in love with the local lad who hauls her back to dry land.

Listing this play under “Dance and Physical Theatre” is pushing it a bit, but there’s no doubt it’s a highly-stylized, carefully-choreographed and perfectly-burnished show.  The small collection of props is used with great economy, conjuring images in my mind far beyond those I saw with my eyes.  Wellington boots turn convincingly into fish; those oilskins return as curtains.  A baby is evoked by nothing more than a cleverly-positioned pair of shoes – or a cradled, empty jacket.

What made this play for me, though, is the portrayal of the half-seal “selkies” themselves: the female caught in the fisherman’s net, and the mate she left at sea.  It’s the subtly inhuman movement of their heads; it’s the hint of the flippers in the way they hold their arms.  Most of all, it’s the wistful cry of their calls, and the piercing vulnerability expressed in their eyes.

The plot, it must be said, is a simple one – amidst all the striking imagery, there’s little room for more.  But it carries a strong and elegant message, all the same.  At its heart is the ironic tragedy of choice: the happiness you can find in things you cannot change, and the pain you can cause yourself when you’re suddenly forced to decide.  There’s a restrained comedy in the portrayal of the fishing village, with its gossip and its timeless feuds, and the young fisherman’s interfering mother (played, to great effect, by a man) does a fine job of selling the humour.  And when the fishing boat sets sail in a storm, there’s a hint, just a hint, of the anguish of those left on the shore.

The script leaves some of the characters a little under-drawn, and a couple of the comedy interludes felt a little over-long.  But on the whole, I enjoyed The Harbour; it’s an elegantly contemporary telling of a far older tale, sympathetic to its heritage but with a style to call its own.  I’ll remember with fondness my time with the selkies.  And I’m haunted, still, by those eyes.

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These are archived reviews of shows from the Edinburgh Fringe 2010.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to those we've featured, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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