REVIEW: Sea Wall at Assembly Theatre is magnificent – and soul-destroying

Photo by Kristina Ruddick.

Sea Wall’s not a play for a large audience.

Some might remember Simon Stephens’ short, devastating monologue from its 2020 production, produced digitally in a photography studio and starring Irish actor Andrew Scott, the first actor ever to perform in Sea Wall in 2008 and the TV heartthrob of “Hot Priest” fame and astonishing emotional depth. 

But only the luckiest of theatregoers will know the play from its current run, produced by Bright Young Things and Quiet Things Creative in association with One Four One collective at the teeny Assembly Theatre. The production features an engrossing Jamie Cavanagh as one of contemporary drama’s most well-written, most broken people: a photographer named Alex.

Alex has it all – a loving wife named Helen, a decent job, a father-in-law with a villa in the south of France. But it’s his daughter, Lucy, who gives any of those things any depth. She’s Helen’s “sidekick,” Alex tells us, and his “sweetheart.” Stephens paints Alex’s daughter with gossamer-thin brush strokes, gorgeously bringing the child – and the silly, tearful father who tells us about her – to life.

Given all this, it seems Alex should thrive. But he has a hole running right through the middle of his stomach, he tells us. An unmissable, terrible hole, a crater lodged in his abdomen by the worst day of his life, spent on a French beach with his family under the blazing summer sun.

I’ve often struggled with Sea Wall for what it does to its audience – it’s one of very few plays for which I feel a specific content warning would spoil the writing, but it’s also a play that demands certain people not see it. Assembly Theatre has opted not to run a content warning, an understandable choice (if one prone to scrutiny given the play’s heavy, heavy plot), but parents of any circumstance may feel the play’s themes more strongly than those without children of their own.

Director Belinda Cornish has made the smart decision to leave the Assembly space close to untouched in her take on the play – there’s a plain black wall, a smattering of photography equipment, and an electric kettle. That’s it — the text and its orator get to shine without visual fuss. As well, the Assembly team has roped off the back three rows of the already teensy audience area, meaning all in attendance, at a maximum of approximately 30 people, are within arm’s reach of Cavanagh as he acts. 

And oh, does he act, conversing with his audience as if catching up with old friends or a therapist or God. Cavanagh puts on an Irish-ish accent as Alex, a trait not imposed by Stephens’ text and perhaps inviting comparison to Scott’s performance — it’s a choice unlikely to register with newcomers to the play but one which will sound familiar to those who cried over the digital production in 2020. Some of Cavanagh’s words become mealy, and some r’s are sharper than others, but it doesn’t particularly matter: the many lives of Alex – inner and outer, past and present, before and after – are so very present in that room. On the night I attended, Cavanagh performed the piece for an audience of 10 (including three critics), and selfishly, I’m grateful for it. Sea Wall is a play for as small and intimate an audience as possible, given the reluctance and quietness with which Alex bears his secrets – but it’s also a play that demands to be seen by anyone who dares listen to whatever might have caused that gaping hole in his torso.

When I first encountered Sea Wall in my bedroom at the height of lockdown in 2020, I wept for days after, watching Scott’s monologue on repeat, ripping open the wound of Alex’s heartbreak again and again. 

I can now report that upon this 2023 viewing, that feeling’s still there, the awe and the pain of a magnificent performance, as well as the hunger to hear that atrocious story again, all 40 or so too-short minutes of it. Anyone who’s experienced loss is well-primed to feel similarly.


Sea Wall runs at Assembly Theatre until October 8. Tickets are available here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

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Written By

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor, a breaking news reporter at CP24, and a former reporter for the Toronto Star. She is former president of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.