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theatre review

Wade Bogert-O’Brien plays the sole survivor of the storm and Julia Course sounds a fine note of Chekhovian sorrow.David Cooper

The Sea, a 1973 play about the aftermath of a deadly storm by the British playwright Edward Bond, has a fascinating character at its centre named Hatch. In a feverish performance at the Shaw Festival, Patrick Galligan makes your hair stand on end as this pathetic, paranoid creature – you're not sure whether to laugh at or be terrified of him, like so many blustering, blithering fellows of his ilk today.

Hatch is a draper who lives a double life. During the day, he subserviently serves the richest inhabitants in his small seaside town – the wealthiest of all being Mrs. Rafi (Fiona Reid, in fine form), who terrorizes him financially by ordering in expensive fabrics and then rejecting them once they have arrived.

But while Hatch takes abuse from his betters in person, as soon as the Mrs. Rafis of the town are out of earshot, he transforms entirely – into a mad militia leader obsessed with Martians, whom he believes are assuming the form of humans and plan to enslave the human race.

When a boat carrying two men capsizes in the storm, and the sole survivor Willy (Wade Bogert-O'Brien) arrives on shore shell-shocked, Hatch is convinced that the invasion has begun and gathers together a posse of less educated locals to help in homeland defence. "They'll take our jobs and our homes," he tells them, sounding like any number of rabble-rousing talk-radio hosts you might name. "Everything. We'll be slaves working all our lives to make goods for sale on other planets."

Five years ago, the Shaw Festival expanded its mandate beyond playwrights who wrote during Bernard Shaw's lifetime to include works by "contemporary Shavians". Bond, with his penchant for politics and ponderous prefaces, is a great fit. And while The Sea is the playwright's least overtly political play – in Eda Holmes's cracking production, this 1973 play set in 1907 also seems his most prescient.

Even in a most literal look at Hatch, it's hard to believe Bond wrote The Sea when David Icke was still a footballer, rather than a conspiracy theorist who posits that everyone from the British Royals to Brian Mulroney are part of a secret breed of reptilian humanoids from another planet. More broadly, however, he resembles all those hard-working men who, crushed by the forces of capitalism despite their best efforts, turn not to political organization for a more equal society, but paranoia about the other. Here is anti-immigration and xenophobia sentiment, most obviously – but also a forerunners of the Truthers and Birthers who so vex our political dialogue today.

What's so wonderful about Hatch, however, is how human he seems even in his craziest moments – all thunder and bluster like the Shakespearean storm that opens the play, but unable to sink anything except for himself. In Galligan's highly pitched performance, he's all harsh angles, bent over obsequiously when Mrs. Rafi is around, and just plain bent when she is not; and heartbreakingly pathetic in up his big moment of futile violence. ("An innocent murder," as Willy puts it.)

The Sea is full of small-town kooks unsettled by the death on their shores, who crop up in scenes that come and go like waves. Playing Mrs. Rafi, Reid gives the other most notable performance – no one does snobby and tyrannical like her. Her competition with a woman (Patty Jamieson) as they sing the hymn For Those in Peril on the Sea at a funeral is hysterical.

As Willy, the alien who has landed in this strange town, Bogert-O'Brien is a sympathetic, big-eyed guide to this crazy town, while Julia Course, as the fiancée of the dead man, sounds a fine note of Chekhovian sorrow amid the madness. Only Peter Millard underwhelms as the self-proclaimed "wise fool" Evens, who inhabits a shack by the seas, understated to the point of blandness.

While Bond shows us a whole rich, rotten world in The Sea, however – it's the character Galligan plays so perfectly here that is his most riveting theatrical creation, easy to laugh at, hard to dismiss, and impossible to forget. We may try to batten down the Hatches, but there seem to be more and more of them every day.