Audrey Cefaly’s The Gulf makes its European premiere at the Tristan Bates Theatre, directed by Matthew Gould. In America, the play has won, or been nominated for, a series of prestigious awards, and the full-length adaptation which we see now in London has been around since 2016, but I was left wondering if it should have remained as the shorter, one-act version. Because, in this ninety-minute two-hander, not a lot happens, at least it doesn’t feel as if it does.
One of many fishing expeditions to a remote stretch of shallow water (where there aren’t many fish, apparently) goes wrong, leaving Kendra and Betty plenty of time to discuss their relationship. Except they don’t, not really. Betty has plenty to say, but it’s all small-town gossip and self-help psychology. Kendra doesn’t want to listen (I don’t blame her) and behaves like a petulant child for most of the ninety minutes. When it does come to the relationship side of things, we’re pretty much left in the dark as to what’s actually going on.
There’s one moment when it looks as if things might get exciting, but it evaporates as quickly as it arrives. Too many things happen without explanation or context, leaving the audience with no reason whatsoever to connect with the characters, and their floundering relationship feels like the last thing any of us should be worried about.
What does keep the audience interested is the cast, Louisa Lytton as sulky Kendra and Anna Acton as excitable Betty, are ideally placed in their respective roles. Overcoming the dangers of the American Deep South accent to present credible characters.
Matthew Gould and Mitchell Reeve’s design is impressive, presented in the round with a full-size boat taking pride of place, while various parts of machinery come away in Kendra’s hand. A small jetty gives an alternate area, almost creating a barrier symbolic of the relationship. The lighting creates a hot haze which slowly gives way to the moonlight, while bird song helps set the scene, overall, it’s an effective look.
These positives however, are swallowed up by the dragging conversations about a woman with fifteen cats, or Betty’s obsession with Kendra finding a new job, “prison guard?” She suggests helpfully. The Gulf is one of those plays where a lot is said, but little happens, and while it looks good, it leaves its audience somewhat adrift.