Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea (Unholy Mess in assoc with Omnibus Theatre, Upstairs at the Western, Leicester, 9 Jan 2018)

reviewed by Sally Jack

On a cold, January evening in a land-locked East Midlands city, we pack our metaphorical bucket and spade for a trip to the seaside with Unholy Mess and their production Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea

Unholy Mess may be better known as performance poet and Saboteur Award shortlist-regular Jemima Foxtrot, and co-writer and director Lucy Allan.  Now at the beginning of a short tour, Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea enjoyed a three-week run in Edinburgh last year, and follows their debut show Melody (2016 Saboteur Award Best Spoken Word Show runner up). 

Jess Green, creator and compere of Find the Right Words (FTRW) and host venue Upstairs at the Western are now programming a new venture, FTRW presents, where a past FTRW headliner returns to the venue with their full-length show and, as with FTRW, a free pre-show workshop is also offered.

But, back to the seaside. For much of the show, Jemima is resplendent in a vintage red swimsuit, and through poetry, song and a pedal loop, she explores memories of childhood, holidays and darker experiences in several key scenes: the re-telling of a joke in a pub, telling a bedtime story to young nephews, recalling family holidays by the sea.

Salt air swaddled us

Framed by an open shell, and on a reflective surface scattered with sand (design by Mayou Trikerioti), changes in lighting signify different settings – the focused light of a tent at night, a bright, sunny day, and the dappling of shimmering water. Jemima expertly weaves moods and melodies through words and movement; the ‘doo-wap’ poem is particularly effective, her cheeky humour not always drowning the pathos which lurks beneath. 

You have a big hairy beer belly and you get offended when I mention it

I watch you closely as you push barbed fish hooks into big maroon maggots

Described as a poetry play, there is no distinct chronology to the narrative in this show, and some may feel frustrated that fragments of story and experience aren’t resolved, however, I found this mesmerising. After all, there is no rule to how memory and experiences ebb and flow in one’s mind, and there is a strong sense of floating in and out with Jemima’s poetic tides. With echoes of playwright Caryl Churchill’s experimentation with language, repeated phrases and motifs take on different subtleties as the performance progresses and combine; the phrase “I’d just turned ten” denotes both a childlike innocence and later, a more sinister recollection.

Jemima’s performance is siren-like: engaging and charming, she creates soaring sounds, sometimes a little too loud but a representation of the discordant effect of a multitude of competing, inner voices. We are lulled by the waves, but aware of danger. 

Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea is a voyage for the senses and expertly evokes picture postcards of familiarity – alert to the joy of fish and chips but with a salty sting in the air.