The Drought presents a fascinating and original concept; a Victorian British Navy ship finds itself slowly sinking into the seabed after the sea has vanished. There are now just two men left onboard, the Captain and Garson, his Steward (Andrew Callaghan and Jack Flammiger). Even though they are the only ones that remain Master and servant, keeping strict naval rituals and presentation intact even as the world around them crumbles; Garson mends his Captain’s coat before helping him dress. This is until there is a knock on the cabin door and the Stranger appears (Caleb O’Brien). Having walked for days before coming across the ship, he appears the worst for it. Yet he does not want food or water, but is instead fixated with the jar on the Captain’s table that contains the last sea water in the world. The Stranger brings division and disruption, questioning the point of pomp and ritual in these unusual circumstances.
There is an impressive restraint to the whole production. Julia Sullivan has created a simple, effective set for the single location of the Captain’s cabin, whilst her costumes highlight the pomp and ritual of Navy men. Alongside this, director Alex McCarthy clearly and rightly has confidence in the cast and Nina Atesh’s script, trusting them to get on with it.
The three strong cast do a fine job showing the madness and desperation of men trapped aboard the ship. Each shows a weariness, a heavy burden carried in their physicality telling us these men are beaten down. There are also moments of empathy and connection between the Stranger and Garson; small, fleeting moments of warmth that perhaps navy ritual would not allow Garson to share with the Captain. The Stranger does not demonstrate the automatic respect and obedience that the Captain is more use to, and as such the Captain finds himself challenged by this more than once.
As you’d expect from the Winner of the 2021 London Horror Playwriting Competition, the script is tight and smart. There are some wonderful lines highlighting the connection between sailor and sea, such as when the Stranger notes for the long-serving Captain that ‘the sea is a part of the soul’; with the Captain and so many sailors defining themselves by the sea, what have they left now? It is very much horror of a different kind, don’t expect any big scares or moments that make you jump. Instead, it is about the atmosphere, the desperation and more than a little paranoia. It is a tense thriller with horror elements.
There is also an ambiguity within the script. Many of the events shown, and indeed those not shown, are left for us to interpret. It’s done in a (mostly) satisfying way. Heading out come the end I heard several people sharing various interpretations. By the time I’d finished the short walk to the tube station, I was on my third theory!
This was the first night of its short run at King’s Head Theatre before it returns in November for Grimfest at Old Red Lion. It’s already off to a formidable start, but I suspect it will be even better after a few more performances.
Written by: Nina Atesh
Director by: Alex McCarthy
Set Design & Costume by: Julia Sullivan
Produced by: Pither Productions
The Drought plays at King’s Head Theatre until 24 September. Further information and bookings can be found here. It then returns for a further run at Old Red Lion as part of Grimfest, 1 – 4 November, more info here.