Imagination is great, but it can’t be the only thing you’ve got. Matt Wilkinson’s play, Red Sea Fish, should be alive with all the colorful British idioms, language, and dreaming characters, but instead, it feels sluggishly adrift as it overly describing the relationship between Ray (Tim Blissett) and his caretaking son, Terry (Matthew Houghton). Those far-too-cerebral fish, which are the only thing Terry is able to imagine, end up more dead than red, which leaves Wilkinson and co-director Franklyn McCabe overcompensating with lyrically choreographed scene changes.
That said, imagination still manages to go a long way. Ever since the loss of his wife, Ray has been plagued with a skin condition (“erythropoeietic protoporhy”) that’s forced him to remain closeted away from the sun. As a result, Terry’s view of the world is reduced to peeks through the slats of a window shade, and his perceptions are shaped by his father’s authoritative stories. On the flip side, Ray finds that he’s losing his own memories—they are shifting—and he attempts to make up for his physical lacks by blustering through, more boisterous by the day. (He even collects obituaries, as a way of remaining present.)
The arrival of an attractive, assertive woman, Karen (Janna Fox) is what upsets their worlds: Terry’s never known anyone like her, so he’s unable to react properly, panicking when things go off book. (“I had it in my brain,” he stammers, “I had a, had a sort of picture.”) Meanwhile, Ray sees her as a substitute for his wife—perhaps his last chance to relive his memories in a physical way.
But their interactions remain bogged down in thick, talky dialogues that wend around—out of politeness, perhaps—what’s really going on. Relationships are established in minutes, but drag out for the first act of the play, more and more of the same. By the time Ray comes up with an excuse to get Terry to leave him and Karen together, you really only wonder what’s taken so long in the first place. Also, Karen doesn’t seem to have any character of her own. Fox plays her with a nice confidence and swagger, and yet the script still forces her to all but disappear into the background.
As for the staging, it often labors over the point, using mechanical gestures that distract from the natural tension of the dialogue. After finding out that his father’s slept with Karen, Terry runs off to understand what it feels like to be a thief—like his father. When he returns, though, he curls up asleep on the floor, and upon awakening, he carefully stacks the stolen quarters (from the arcade) on the table and then more carefully pushes them off the table. It’s too poetic a statement for anyone in this family, and especially for the play. The play gets much better in its final third, once the father starts speaking directly: “I’m an invalid; what do you think I can take that can’t be taken away again?”
Red Sea Fish isn’t a bad play, but it is a boring play, and that’s perhaps worse.