An adroit theatrical miniaturist, Simon Stephens loses his way with “On the Shore of the Wide World,” which marks pretty much the sole misstep in the 2005 National Theater season to date. Co-production with Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theater (where the play world preemed in April), Stephens’ generational saga aims for the eloquence of the Keats sonnet from which it takes its title, but instead merely emerges as a blueprint for a TV miniseries of the soapier kind.
A nearly three-hour evening is 20 minutes shorter, apparently, than it was in Manchester but still reaches the audience divided into four parts, or “chapters.” The first, entitled “Christopher,” involves the lone character whose fate critics are specifically urged not to reveal. Suffice it to say that young thesp Steven Webb makes a rather overeager impression as the younger of two teenage boys living in Stockport, the Manchester suburb an aerial view of which doubles as the stage floor of Liz Ascroft’s set.
While fretting about terrorist attacks on the community, 15 year-old Christopher has an adolescent’s capacity for bluntness. This applies when quizzing his heavy-drinking granddad, Charlie (David Hargreaves), on his fear of death or inquiring as to the sexual appetite of Sarah (Carla Henry), the new g.f. of Christopher’s 18-year-old brother Alex (Thomas Morrison).
Christopher isn’t the only one disinclined to think before speaking. Scarcely has Sarah met the boys’ father, Peter (Nicholas Gleaves), a building restorer, before she is requesting a peek at his muscles. Small wonder that wife Alice (Siobhan Finneran), who gets her own chapter later on, isn’t exactly a pillar of strength herself. With Alex and Sarah escaping south to London, Alice is left with a husband whose powers of temptation extend to pregnant local employer Susan (Susannah Harker), who we can tell is middle-class from her choice of drinks. She’s a mango juice girl all the way.
“On the Shore of the Wide World” aims for a kind of verisimilitude — an attempt to anatomize Stockport in much the same way that Owen McCafferty’s National success “Scenes From the Big Picture” did Belfast two years ago. In fact, the play, and Sarah Frankcom’s production of it, seem as if they could be set anywhere. This doesn’t so much speak to the universality of the material as to an inability to refresh situations with a faintly dog-eared quality, no matter how regional the accents.
The dramatic layout raises more questions than are helpful, as the different chapters chronicle a year or so. Why is the centerpiece of the section named for Peter, not about him at all? And why make so much of the young couple’s defection for London when the person who draws them southward, Matt Smith’s pyromaniacal Paul, is so crudely conceived?
Grandpa’s big scene near the end, with its unexpected quotation of Elvis Presley, could be cut entirely. Peter’s subsequent musings on the stars in the Milky Way owe more to the globe speckled with light that hangs above the set than to a natural instinct for poetry on behalf of the character. Gleaves gives a fine account of a genuinely nice man whose bonhomie snaps under stress, but it’s hard to fight writing that wants to be liberating but actually feels quite contrived.
What happened to the incisiveness that has distinguished Stephens’ work in the studio confines of, among other venues, the Royal Court Upstairs? Hard to say, unless current film and TV commissions have left him working on precisely the broad canvas he now wishes to transpose to the stage. The result is longer but not richer and does the play’s title no favors. For all its busy plotting, “On the Shore of the Wide World” ends up looking pretty small.