Silence, when used properly and skilfully, can be the most prized of a theatre maker’s weapons. In keeping with this, the runner up in the Soho Young Writers Award for 2012, James Ernest’s The 8th Wave, is at its most expressive when there is nothing said at all.
This is particularly true of its beginning. A young man sits tied to a chair in what resembles a sort of workshop whilst an older man sits hunched over the table alongside him, devouring a meal of baked beans and bread. Everything about this scene, the food, the darkness, the older man’s cruel remarks, suggests a cold, hard tension that hangs quietly in the air.
And yet nothing conveys this sense of foreboding more than the silence. It is the moments in between speech, the lingering looks between man and boy that one gains a real sense of unease. These silences do not only establish atmosphere but also work to ration out the information we are given and so, not knowing who, or why this young man is being held captive until rather late into the play slowly ramps up this tension at a steady and deliberate pace.
While the specifics take a little time to unravel, what becomes clear is that taking place in this room is a generation at odds with each other. We learn that the older man, Brian, preaches about “the kids today” from a fortress built of copies of the Daily Mail and the Sun. We learn that Matthew, the younger man, comes from a broken home and that breaking into Brian’s shop that night was “actually all one big cry for attention”.
But most importantly, we learn that they are both, like the generations they represent, incredibly isolated. It is on concentrating upon this element and the process of these two men reaching out for each other, that the play transcends what could have been clichéd and generalising to become a very personal and touching story.
Crucially, both performances are flawless, with both Francis Adams as Brian and Alex Payne as Matthew conveying a real sense of yearning for each other’s companionship under the mistrust and dislike. The change in tone towards the end feels a little abrupt and yet The 8th Wave sweeps you up into such a desire for these two characters to connect that it can be forgiven. Beautifully written, the characters of The 8th Wave linger long in the memory.