Memory can be a fishy thing.
Let’s get this straight right off the bat – Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea is an odd kettle of fish. The premise is simple enough – emerging from a four panel frame with a hole resembling a black silhouette (perhaps representative of the holes in our memories), performance poet Jemima Foxtrot plays herself, recalling going up to a pub in Somerset, taking to the stage and readying herself to tell a joke. This isn’t just any old joke – it’s a long one, one that involves fish, fishermen, posh schoolboys and promises an amazing punchline. Only problem is, she’s forgotten the punchline, hanging on a word as she stutters and embarrasses herself onstage.
But like memory itself, this is by no means a straightforward narrative, and Jemima is quickly swept up in the undertow of her own subconscious mind as she’s dragged into her past each time she pauses and forgets. We enter the strange world of Jemima’s mind as she recalls her childhood, shifting back and forth through time and space, from a ‘lilac bedroom’ to memories of watching Titanic. Memories of a man she seems to once have had a crush on, suggesting but never explicitly stating she may have been sexually abused at one point, before rushing into a torrid sexual affair in her 20s in a bathroom. The difficulty of discussing childhood traumas and abuse is expressed via her literal inability to speak, or for her mind to wander and rush away from the subject each time she gets too close to saying it.
At various points, Jemima even begins to describe the plot of a Simpsons episode, highlighting just how much Western pop culture has permeated our minds, surfacing when we least expect it and manipulated to sound almost poetic from the way she describes it. Twisting and turning back and forth, non-linear and deliberately esoteric, Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea is a tough performance to hold on to, much like a slippery fish.
So by all means, when watching it, allow yourself to go with the flow and simply enjoy Jemima’s eccentricities as she attempts to yell above the sound of cacophonies created from loops of her own voice, strips down to a bright red swimsuit and ‘dives’ into her little island of soil. Each word that emerges from her mouth isn’t necessarily meaningful, and neither is it not, but as a mood piece, one finds one’s self surprisingly enamoured by the way this performance flows, dream-like as we immerse ourselves in Jemima’s surreal songs of her own making, a dream that’s tantalizing in its lure to continually wander through, yet knowing there is a dark truth we must at some point wake up from.
While it never quite makes clear the true crux of its message, Above the Mealy-Mouthed Sea is certainly nothing short of an experience as we watch Jemima swim her way through her sea of murky memories, and makes clear how choppy the waters are in navigating our own fears and experiences. Disarmingly charming at times, Jemima is an engaging enough performer to keep our attention throughout, despite the show’s rather zigzag narrative, always entertaining, always likeable.
Above the Mealy-Mouthed Sea winds up rather pleasant overall, neither accusatory nor calm, and a reflection of the experiences that make up one’s psyche to create the people we are today. When Jemima finally delivers the punchline at the end of the show, when she finally finds closure and emerges from the titular ‘mealy-mouthed sea’, there is both relief and the sense that she has learnt to move on from the past, and boldly speak her truth as she paddles on into the future.
Photo Credit: Camilla Greenwell
Performance attended 22/1/19
Above the Mealy-mouthed Sea plays from 22nd to 23rd January 2019 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets available from SISTIC