It's the fourth annual Camden Fringe Festival and, with an impressive 118 shows on offer during the month of August, the enterprise has come of age. Like any self-respecting fringe festival, the brochure boasts that "some shows will be wonderful, some might be bad, a few will be weird, some will be quite average". The Off-West End experience in a nutshell, in fact, and a fair echo of Edinburgh. So far, so good.
Vera and the Sea is a promising period piece where secrets of the past return to haunt the present. Shades of late Ibsen in the title, but there's surely going to be some contemporary resonance tucked under the bustle of this mock-19th-Century frock opera?
Sadly not. Katherine Hayes's play is carelessly constructed and acted with variable competence by its tense cast. Poor Vera (a plausible Ellie Lavan): some splintered memory of childhood is ruining her life as Albert (Gavin Kerr) and confusing visions of Charlotte (Amy Clarke) crowd in on her. What's she to do?
This is thin gruel. I all but missed the reported depravity at the heart of this tale, so stunted are the brief scenes that tumble over one another with scant regard for exposition or character growth. The play deals with a young bride haunted by repressed guilt but the script offers no emotional landscape, preferring instead to take the quickest route from A to B. There is much talk of ‘powders' (for the nerves, my dear), a modern teacup makes multiple appearances and such action as there is favours the verbal over the visual.
Hayes directs with a sure eye for cliché. Catherine Cayman, who plays Albert's wicked sister Joyce, cannot enter without bobbing a vague hand to dab her hair. As the (apparently) dastardly Sir Pritchard, Brian Mitty's costume has watch pockets on the waistcoat, so in go the thumbs. All in all, Ellida Wangel meets Jennet Humfrye for Festen lite – if only Vera had stayed at sea