Brothers Callum and Gussie have just lost their mother. Looking out to sea shortly after the funeral, Gussie is convinced he sees her in the form of a mythical Selkie (a human in seal form). For the next few days, the boys scan the water from the Kirkcaldy cliff-tops in the desperate hope that she will make it to shore. But conflict soon appears in the form of Harriet, an attractive young runaway who has joined them at the “end of the world” to seek her father.
As a premise, this may all sound rather fantastical and somewhat implausible. But, thanks to powerhouse performances from the cast (particularly Joseph Arkley and Owen Whitelaw as the brothers), it doesn’t take long before all traces of disbelief have been suspended. This is largely thanks to the rare level of understanding that writer Ali Taylor shows for his protagonists. There is real anger underscoring the action, as these parentless children cling to each other for support after the abandonment of their mothers and fathers.
If the play has a flaw, it lies in the second half. What could easily (and probably should) be an edited 90 minute performance is broken in two, meaning the evening is unnecessarily stretched out, and the climax sadly underwhelming as a result. Despite this however, the sheer energy and exuberance of the cast wins through and ensures we remain at least curious, if not compelled.
Designer Polly Sullivan deserves credit for her clever use of the limited confines of Theatre 503. A cold, sparse atmosphere is created on stage in perfect reflection of a setting where the mist and rain are so constant they “don’t even have a horizon”. James Drew’s simple but haunting soundscape enhances the effect, the constant lapping of the waves becoming as hypnotic to the audience as it does to the brothers.
Cotton Wool reminds one of the importance of the London fringe. As the West End continues to prove a somewhat hostile environment for new playwrights, it’s heartening to see venues such as the 503 providing a platform for the next wave of writing talent. And Ali Taylor is clearly one to watch. His ear for dialogue, skilful use of vernacular and sharp wit are in abundant evidence, and his recent win of the Metamorphosis 08 playwriting competition should help him reach the larger audiences he deserves.