Whilst you can point to contradictions the underlying feel of the ‘60s in Britain, sharply focused on London, was bright, breezy and optimistic. Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel Offshore, here dramatised by Michael Butt, captures a penetrative snapshot of that shiny optimism through the dilemmas of an eclectic mix of seemingly unconnected characters who live on boathouses on the Thames. Fitzgerald had a literary background but came to publication relatively late in life at the age of 58 and Offshore, her third novel, won her deserved acclaim through winning the Booker Prize. Michael Butt’s dramatic adaptation for radio captures expertly the novel’s unassuming simplicity that masks razor sharp characters and the spirit in which many of the era tackled their dilemmas in this “tragi-farce” set, hindsight teaches us, in a golden time.
Forced to live on a houseboat on the Thames when her husband takes a job abroad, Nenna, and her daughters Martha and Tilda, encounter an eclectic mix of individuals who also live on houseboats. For various reasons, each has difficulty fitting in and faces crucial dilemmas and decisions exacerbated by their flaws, needs and outlooks. Together they get along, gather wisdom and insight and begin to see more clearly who they are and what they want in life. This is not the heavy and involved existentialism of Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir, but perhaps existentialism in real life as it was for a generation awakening for the first time.
The play is introduced and ended in the style of an announcer, by Martha and Tilda, and has the feel of a Polaroid snapshot of the period. Stylistically and structurally this gives the play shape, sets the tone – light, fun, entertaining – and helps us to view the characters as though doing so through the eyes of young children. The innocence and childlike simplicity of problems and difficulties is explored through the play and although a deceptively simple technique, it is genius in its effectiveness. Would this novel be published nowadays? It is unlikely, although it ought, and yet through a radio play it works extremely well and carries relevance some 55 years after its first appearance.
Michael Butt’s adaptation for radio is sharp, witty and accurately draws on the novel. He has captured the tone of the novel, the times and the characters with spot-on accuracy. Somehow, and it is the mark of great writing, the characters seem larger than the words they utter, the interactions they have and the things they do. The children’s direct appeal to the audience at the beginning and the end of the play lures you into an sympathetic intimacy with the characters and their lives. We feel we know Martha and Tilda as they make their faux mistakes in introducing the characters just as a chorus would in a Greek play.
The play’s production values are excellent. Ambient noises add atmosphere and whether it is a crowd or a sinking boat the listener is lured deeper into the colourful world. The early ‘60s were bright and breezy and the music that depicts the time – carefree, aspirational, full of exploration – carries that sense of fresh liveliness especially for a generation of young who had never before experienced the luxury of choice, possibility and potential. A heady mix for the times. Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday – a timeless classic – transports the listener back to the period with vivacity. I can see that bus, Lionel Blair, and those arguments and all the colourful clothes.
For the more intent and serious listener the play does not disappoint a modern, thoughtful audience. Characters throw out one-liners that are as relevant nowadays as they were at the time the novel was written. “I told you we can’t be responsible for our parents all our lives. We have to allow him to work things out for themselves. It’s the way I see it” decries Martha, as a boat sinks nearby. “Didn’t you know that everything you learn, and everything you suffer, will come in useful at some point in your life?” Such wisdom, although perhaps just repeating her headmistress, seems out of place coming from a six-year-old nowadays but wisdom and insight like this were commonplace in children before social media contaminated our young. Tilda’s offhand observation that “It must be difficult being an adult” screams volumes about crises we face today and begs reflection on how the world has changed for the young, robbed, by technology, of their time, innocence and ability to unselfconsciously observe and comment with searing accuracy. Ambiguity and disorientation remain beneath our water level and threaten constantly to flood our lives. Perhaps there is deep symbolism in the houseboat being called Grace in a period when there was more optimism and spirit than there would appear to be today.
The play is peppered with cameo characters (with each actor who portrays them worthy of note) who bring perspective to the plot and motivation to Canadian exile, Nenna, who at only 32 seems exhausted and exasperated with life. The acting across the play is consistent, excellent and benefits from clear and strong direction by David Hunter. I get the sense that the director and characters enjoyed the play. Nenna’s worry is conveyed clearly by Hattie Morahan. Rosie Boore and Molly Pipe play Tilda and Martha respectively and through sisterly love masterfully capture that unimpeded knowledge that children can have and the savage insouciance with which they state the obvious. They also carry much of the play’s humour with great skill and command.
Whist not initially a play I would look forward to listening to I found it gripping and it brought me into a long-lost world of innocence, space and happiness.
Offshore is highly recommended for its production, humour, characters and sense of joy.