‘Coasting’, Bristol Old Vic, 13/10/11

Written by Natalie McGrath and directed by Emily Watson Howes

We emerge through a smoke-filled studio into an underground world of crashing waves, flashing fruit machines, and the muffled throb of a night club. This is the desolate 80’s British seaside town of Natalie McGrath’s ‘Coasting’ in which our two main characters, Pearl and Ocean, together grapple to survive in a grimy existence of violence, sex and drugs. They are creatures born of this place; dropping pills, looting the arcades and dodging local copper, Falcon, but reality hits when a dead body washes up on the beach and their dreams of escape shatter.

Ultimately this is a tender and poignant piece about the transcending power of friendship. Pearl and Ocean are bonded in their possession of a private, ‘Clockwork Orange’ style language that soars with the poetic imagery of a Shakespearean sonnet and crashes to earth with a guttural monosyllable, like a distilled essence of emotional expression. (Eyes become ‘orbs’, ‘freaky love’ is a euphemism for gay sex, and an ‘ambience’ a place.) This is the most notable and riskiest aspect of this first full-length play to emerge from Bristol Old Vic’s new-work programme, Ferment; one which threatens to leave the audience alienated from the story. Whilst the beauty and playfulness of McGrath’s imaginative linguistics elevates the pair beyond their stagnant surroundings, the audience is left straggling and, at times, barely managing to catch the plot.

Nonetheless we are captured by the sheer exuberance of young actors, Tom Wainwright and Nadia Giscir, who, when synthesised with sound and lighting, convey a frantic night out or evoke a location purely with their fearless physicality. At other moments this is balanced by sensitive performances of these bruised characters on the periphery of life. Nadia Giscir tenderly portrays Pearl’s vulnerability, whilst Tom Wainwright embodies the nervous sexual energy of Ocean to a tee.

When, in the closing scene of the play, Pearl grasps the railings of the pier and rages against her hometown, there is no confusion about what’s being said. McGrath stirringly recalls the suffocation of adolescent aspirations under the poverty of a place, and the dangerous discontent that emerges from it.