Following their Brexit-based show last year, this semester St Andrews’ devising troupe, BlackBox, took a break from politics to explore Scottish folklore. To the Ocean tells the story of a young girl, Grace, whose mother Shonagh leaves when she is eight years old. Unable to tell her the truth, her father convinces her that Shonagh is a Selkie (a seal that can take off its skin and live on land as a human) who saved his life when his boat was caught in a storm but was then unable to come back to land. The majority of the play follows fifteen-year-old Grace and her friend Ana as they leave their small seaside town and follow the clues in a newspaper article to find Shonagh in the big city.
The venue for the production, the Harbour Café by East Sands, was the perfect setting. With one row of chairs around the tiny room, the actors were right next to the audience, creating an intimate experience and transporting us in a way which is impossible with all the trappings of a conventional theatre. The sweets and seaside paraphernalia one would expect in a seaside café look somehow more mystical lit with fairy lights, and one could almost sense the nearby sea. Set was almost non-existent, consisting only of two chairs, and technical aspects were similarly simple, with the actors moving three small lights, flicking them on and off, and using coloured gels to create different atmospheres and settings. This self-conscious theatricality complemented the fairytale structure of the show, as this was a story very aware of, and playing with the conventions of storytelling.
While acting was strong across the board, there were some moments, particularly in scenes between Ana (Ana Fati) and Grace (Grace Thorner) where cues could have been tighter or where lines seemed to have been slightly muddled and replies didn’t quite correspond to the line they were responding to. This was probably primarily due to first-night nerves, but with the audience so close there is really nowhere to hide, so the show would have benefitted from a little more polish. There were also some moments where actors shouted, particularly the ebullient character of Ana, where their proximity to the audience made this jarring. Again, a minor issue, but a little more attention to the effect of this in such an unusual space would have bolstered the production. Highlights were the narration from Bailey Fear and Isabel Dollar, with atmospheric guitar music accompanying, which were the moments of the play where the “magic” they claimed didn’t exist felt closest. Shonagh’s (Dollar) description of the moment where she fell in love with Grace’s father Jim (Fear) was also stunning and pathos-filled, with Fear’s singing and Dollar’s breaking voice creating a truly heart-breaking moment. There was also a beautiful poignancy to the reunion of two people who truly loved each other but due to circumstance are unable to be together – Shonagh may not be a Selkie, but just like many women in Selkie stories, her calling leaves her unable to ever be content to live in a small town with her family.
This semester BlackBox have absolutely triumphed in their attempt to create a modern fairytale. The venue, lighting and music evoked a powerful atmosphere, and despite some minor issues with polish and working with the space, To the Sea is a charming and transporting piece of theatre. Although director Oli Savage was clearly strongly influenced by Lion House Theatre Company’s 2016 Fringe show Every Wild Beast (a favourite among the St Andrews Fringe contingent that year), he puts a new spin on their style, and similarly leaves his audience feeling that they have, for an hour or so, escaped from the hustle and bustle of the ordinary world. While the narrators remind us of the “magic” that can be sensed in thunderstorms, the production primarily reminds its audience of the transformative, ephemeral magic of good theatre.