First Night: The Sea, Theatre Royal, London

Kent's gamble seals homecoming for Bond
Click to follow

At the age of 74, the radical dramatist Edward Bond has finally made his belated West End debut. It comes courtesy of Jonathan Kent, who directs this splendid production of Bond's 1973 comedy The Sea.

A good example of a prophet without honour in his own country, Bond is fêted and regularly scheduled on the Continent, but he is cold-shouldered by the English theatre establishment. This is partly through his marked propensity to row with and estrange himself from the subsidised companies.

The director is the man who made a hot West End ticket of the verse tragedies of Racine. Here Kent brilliantly succeeds in his gamble of fielding a Bond piece as the second instalment of his inaugural season at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. He has already mounted a searching revival in Sheffield of Lear, Bond's mighty riposte to Shakespeare's tragedy. Now Kent stages a production that beautifully captures what is hilarious and haunting in The Sea, Bond's free response to The Tempest, Shakespeare's greatest tragicomedy.

Set in a small East Anglian town in 1907 with war on the horizon, it begins with a shipwreck and death-by-drowning and ends with the suspended answer to a question and tentative hope. In between, it focuses on the deeply unsentimental education of Willy Carson (the excellent Harry Lloyd), a young outsider who survived his friend Colin, the great white hope of the district.

Film of crashing waves is flashed on a scrim between scenes, reminding us of the awesome indifference of the sea to man's concerns. Throughout, Kent's expertly acted production has the measure of the play's colliding perspectives. It is alert to the gloriously petty comedy of small-town life presided over by Mrs Rafi, the local Lady Bracknell. Her autocratic disdain is tempered in Eileen Atkins' magnificent performance by a wry, hard-eyed acknowledgment of the lonely, loveless existence that comes with playing the monster of people's expectations. Marcia Warren is a joy as Mrs Rafi's frustrated, attention-seeking sidekick.

This is a tightly stratified world where a pressured sense of his social inferiority drives the draper (played by a wonderfully demented David Haig) to paranoid delusions of alien invasion and paroxysms of racial hatred.

But, thanks to characters such as the wrecked, beach-dwelling eccentric Evens (a sympathetic David Burke), the play has a poetic reach that, liberatingly, can view man's life against a galactic backdrop. "Who can kill space, or time, or dust?... All destruction is finally petty, and in the end life laughs at death."

Meanwhile, there are terrific set-pieces of misdirected violence (the draper frenziedly stabbing the wrong corpse) and of ludicrously botched ceremonies (the ashes of the deceased flung over all in a fight).

And the inset play, Orpheus and Eurydice, has a cunningly inverted moral: don't look away, keep your eyes trained backwards on suffering and on what you care about.

The play's different scales of reference are encapsulated – with a nicely droll, deprecatory touch – in the wise fool's injunction to the young hero: "Catch the 11.45 and change the world."