Tapping the shoes of every audience member three times as they enter is an unusual way to start a show, but those are the rules and rules are very important. We Live by the Sea is all about the rules – or rather, about learning a new set of rules and a new way of thinking. It is a devised piece by London-based Patch of Blue, developed with support from the National Autistic Society and Greenwich Theatre.
Katy, an autistic teenager who loves the seaside and dancing, tells the story of how she, her sister Hannah, and her imaginary dog Paul Williams become friends with Ryan, a new boy in town who comes to appreciate Katy for who she is.
We Live by the Sea does a good job of providing insight into some experiences of people on the autism spectrum. For the most part this is done through Katy’s simple and honest account of what she is thinking, with additional explanations provided by Hannah. At one point, several loud voices and an even louder clicking sound overlap while lights flash, giving the audience a taste of how overwhelming things can get when your brain isn’t filtering out extraneous sensory input.
While we see that taking care of Katy can be difficult for Hannah, the focus is on Katy’s good qualities and how they can be just what someone is looking for in a friend. Too often the narrative tendency in our culture would be to applaud Ryan for befriending someone different, but that is not the case here. Ryan needs a friend like Katy as much as she needs a friend like him, and We Live by the Sea is primarily a celebration of who Katy is as a person.
Like Katy, this play is a bit different and full of playfulness, fun, and original thinking, with emotional highs and lows. The acting is excellent all around, though Alex Brain as Katy stands out in particular for her physicality. Fairy lights, projections, and the live music all contribute to making this an aesthetically pleasing production.
With over one percent of the population in the UK on the autism spectrum, it is important to try to understand it. We Live by the Sea provides an informative, positive, and respectful portrait of an autistic girl, while being a highly engaging, inventive, and outstanding piece of theatre.