THEATRE: Sea of Faces; Theatre Alibi, Northcott Studio Theatre, Exeter

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The Independent Culture
There's a comic in Torquay who challenges his OAP audience by quizzing them about wartime radio shows. His knowledge is encyclopedic but Tim Pope is in his twenties and the nostalgia is well beyond his range. Nostalgia out of reach is the theme of Theatre Alibi's new production Sea of Faces. The origin of the show was a suitcase full of old photographs found on a Council rubbish dump. Hundreds of sepia prints, a record of an entire family's existence, from posed studio shots of children in their Sunday best to the same people getting married, on holiday, starting their first job, and a magnificent print of around 50 people on a formal occasion that is printed in the programme.

Nobody has claimed the pictorial family. Did the last member have a turn out and dump the entire archive, thinking that the past was better forgotten? Or maybe they saw the certainty of the past as a reproach in the uncertain present?

Each snap tells a story, or at least a story can be constructed to fit. Daniel Jamieson, who wrote the script for the company to work on, allows imagination to get beneath the skin of a smiling face. Was it really as jolly as this? That resolute putteed soldier in the First World War, one of England's finest, maybe an Old Contemptible, walked a minefield with his officer who was blown up while reciting his lucky mantra.

And then there is the serendipity of everyday life, how the lady photographer engaged for the family portrait fell in love with the soldier on leave, how turning the wrong corner caused a meeting that should never have happened.

This mosaic of memories is intriguing, but is it significant or merely inconsequential? A family history thrown out with the rubbish. The people themselves do not attach any importance to it; why then should an experimental theatre company find it fascinating?

The fact is that the discovery has caused a bout of artistic endeavour based on speculation. The unknown family, like the unknown soldier, represent countless lives of mundane ordinariness. Henry Hawkes (the actor's real name, that might have been invented for the show) and Emma Rice invest the ordinary with glamour, sentimental music, dancing; a series of touching vignettes, that will either charm or curdle depending on your point of view. Do they over-sentimentalise the working class or were they really the salt of the earth? Were these inarticulate short-changed representatives of the pre-1944 Education Act as defenceless as they seem?

Sea of Faces is an engaging piece of theatre, directed by Nikki Sved. The cliched idea of the local archive gets a fresh impetus as each image shown on a screen is enhanced by an imaginary history. Curious, imaginative and theatrical. To 8 Feb (01392 493493), then tours to May

Allen Saddler

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