Review: We Live By The Sea at Arts Theatre

We Live By The Sea, the latest production from Patch of Blue, opened to universal acclaim in Edinburgh this summer, before the company were invited to open the Fringe Encores Series in New York. Now they’re back in London, and having finally seen the show everyone’s been raving about, all I can say is… I get it.

Patch of Blue have worked with The National Autistic Society to bring us the story of Katy (Alex Brain), who’s 15 and lives on the coast with her older sister Hannah (Alexandra Simonet). Katy has to greet strangers by tapping their shoes three times, she can’t stand physical contact and she has an imaginary dog called Paul Williams (Lizzie Grace). She’s also incredibly lonely – until 17-year-old Ryan (Lloyd Bagley) arrives in town. What follows is a poignant and charming tale about an unlikely friendship and how sometimes changing how you think about things can make a whole world of difference.

Photo credit: Scarab Pictures
Photo credit: Scarab Pictures

As ever, the attention to detail in this production is exquisite. This is a company that do their homework, and always aim to bring us a true picture, without any attempts to glamorise or conceal anything (even the fact that it’s theatre – “now we are going to do what is called a montage” was perhaps one of my favourite moments). It’s important that we see past Katy’s autism – and we do; Alex Brain is utterly enchanting, her performance revealing a creative and affectionate young girl, who sees the world with a childlike innocence and vulnerability that make you just want to go and give her a hug… And yet at the same time, the play makes no secret of the fact that doing so would probably earn you a slap. Similarly, the devotion between Katy and Lizzie Grace’s Paul the dog is heartwarming to watch, only for us to come crashing back to earth as Paul explains he’s only perfect because he’s not real.

Alexandra Simonet perfectly captures the realism of the play in her portrayal of Hannah, who seems far older than her 19 years, and is caught between affection for her sister and resentment at everything she’s had to give up to care for her. And the unexpected realisation that Lloyd Bagley’s Ryan – a more complex character than he initially appears, whose story remains something of a mystery – might be getting as much out of the friendship as Katy and Hannah, forces us to reconsider our own assumptions.

Photo credit: Scarab Pictures
Photo credit: Scarab Pictures

We Live By The Sea continues the work begun by the fantastic The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, educating audiences about the experience of living with autism. But while Curious Incident does so with spectacular effects, Patch of Blue prove that far simpler techniques can have just as much impact. In addition to live music composed by folk band Wovoka Gentle, Alex Howarth’s production uses sound and light effects to give us an insight into what life’s like for someone with autism in moments of stress; flashing lights, loud noises and overlapping voices combine to create a deliberately uncomfortable effect, which has us squirming in our seat and longing for it to stop.

Yet again, Patch of Blue have created something very special. Heartbreaking, challenging and inspiring, We Live By The Sea offers us a different way of thinking about autism, immersing us in Katy’s world instead of the other way around, and celebrating her as a person without ever shying away from the often harsh reality of her life. It’s a beautiful piece of theatre, and one that everyone should see.

We Live By The Sea is at the Arts Theatre until 1st October.

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