The Sea, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

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The Independent Culture

At the age of 74, the radical dramatist Edward Bond makes his belated West End debut, courtesy of Jonathan Kent, who has directed a splendid production of his 1973 comedy The Sea. A classic case of a prophet without honour in his own country, Bond is fêted on the Continent, but he's cold-shouldered by the English theatre establishment, partly through a propensity to row with and estrange himself from subsidised companies.

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

Set in a small East Anglian coastal town in 1907, with war discernible on the horizon, it's a play that begins with a shipwreck and a 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 (an excellent Harry Lloyd).

Kent's expertly acted production is alert to the gloriously petty comedy of small-town life presided over by Mrs Rafi, whose autocratic disdain is tempered in Eileen Atkins's magnificent performance by a wry, hard-eyed acknowledgment of the lonely, loveless existence that has come from playing the monster. Marcia Warren, too, 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 has driven the draper (a wonderfully demented David Haig) to delusions of alien invasion and paroxysms of racial hatred. At the same time, thanks to characters like the wrecked beach-dwelling eccentric Evens (a sympathetic David Burke), the play has a philosophic and poetic reach that can liberatingly view human 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."

The play's different scales of reference are highlighted, with nice, droll deprecation, in the wise fool's injunction to the young hero: "Catch the 11.45 and change the world".

To 19 April (0870 060 6642); a version of this review has already run in some editions of the paper