Photo by: Rachael Cummings Photo by: Rachael Cummings

Review: The Gulf at Tristan Bates Theatre

Written for Everything Theatre

A walk around Covent Garden followed by the blessed cool of the small auditorium of the Tristan Bates Theatre is not a bad way to spend a warm spring evening. Even more so when the show on offer stars two fantastic actors like Louisa Lytton and Anna Acton, who some might recognise from TV favourites such as EastEnders and The Bill. Being more of a Doctor Who person myself, I went in oblivious to these ladies’ talents, but what a treat they are.

The Gulf gives us 90 minutes in the lives of Kendra and Betty, a young couple in Alabama, who have taken the day off to go on a fishing trip together. Well, Kendra fishes, Betty talks and reads a self help book (sorry, ‘career development manual’). And, over the course of the evening, they also tear each other into pieces. Lytton and Acton tackle this two-hander with great verve. Lytton’s Kendra relishes her own nastiness before finally showing a very deeply buried vulnerability towards the end, while Acton relentlessly plays with our sympathies as Betty, who is tender one moment and patronising the next.

In my 4.5 years of reviewing, only a handful of shows that have come my way centred on a gay relationship, and even then, they have usually been issue-based. It makes a nice change to see a play about two women in a relationship that is about the actual relationship, and not about the fact that the participants are both female. But what a depressing relationship this is; the audience spend most of the show watching two people basically emotionally abuse each other. Kendra mercilessly mocks Betty’s attempts at engaging her, while Betty seems determined to ‘improve’ Kendra, either with or without her consent. Towards the end of the show, we do get a look at the issues that are at the root of the pair’s sniping and see the emotional depths that are hinted at earlier on. Nevertheless, I didn’t find either of the characters particularly likeable, so trying to stay engaged while they take their insecurities out on each other was a bit of a challenge.

The set is beautifully detailed, featuring an actual rowing boat tied surrounded by reeds in the middle of the floor. In the background, a soundscape of insects chirping away contributes to the scene even further. Given the level of attention lavished on these aspects of the show, I was rather surprised at the absence of water in any shape or form: there are no gently rolling waves in the soundscape, and the actors move around the boat with the absolute confidence that only comes from being very firmly placed on dry land. In such an atmospheric setting, it feels like a missed opportunity to not acknowledge this major part of Kendra and Betty’s surroundings.

Despite the show’s challenges, I am thoroughly delighted at seeing a play in which two women get to be a couple rather than A Gay Couple. More of this, please.

The Gulf is playing at Tristan Bates Theatre until 5 May 2018