Monday, 10 January 2011

Amphibians - Offstage Theatre at The Bridewell

There's been plenty of coverage of the 2012 PRS commissions, a substantive musical part of the trumpeted but hard-to-define Cultural Olympiad tie-in. Theatre company Offstage Theatre is ahead in this game, having collaborated with top competitors on a play about the experience of elite-level swimming. This glossy, Bill Viola-like company-produced trailer evokes the spirit of the show:

Despite being given towels as we went into the theatre - to sit on! - there is no water in the show although, serendipitously-by-design, the Bridewell Theatre is a former public bath and left as an undressed set for the production. Rather, the piece concerns two estranged former swimmers, trying to re-imagine their recalled experiences. I'm all for this outwardly rather 'artistic' approach: the natural drama of competition is already complete, so for successful theatre, different ideas are necessary.

Where this production succeeds is in the management of the flashback sequences which represent the memories of the two principals. As a technical piece of theatre, Amphibians is impeccable. Crisp lighting and sound design (Richard Williamson & Gregory Clarke) are effective and pertinent - I like the persistent background of electric crackle, again not a literal representation of water but laterally reminiscent of splashing, not to mention some synaptic interface, memory at work. Cressida Brown's direction uses the space to bring characters in and out of the audience's consciousness as smoothly as the principals' time-folding solipsisms. Notably there is a ballet to recreate a training swim which faithfully reproduces the apogee and perigee of glide and frenzy in a swimmer's action.

Unavoidably then, for all the artistic transliteration of the sport there's a certain amount of physicality involved. In addition to the choreography, the cast have to get in and out of the theatre's former pool a number of times, as well as spending the best part of the show in little more than swimming costumes. Presumably there has been some preparation in a gym as well as a rehearsal space as the company look fit, physically convincing as a group of sporting teenagers.

However, bodies are alluded to but not dwelt on in the script. What moment of real scrutiny there is becomes believable due to the fine physical condition of Louise Ford's Elsa and the particularly sculpted appearance of Sam Heughan's Max. Heughan plays him as hair-trigger unpredictable, irascible but needy. The two muddle through their encounter continually dipping a toe (if you like) in the water of nostalgia though for what purpose is not quite clear. The nebulous narrative of the encounter held me back from really engaging with the production. Nostalgia and flashback is a rewarding formal construct but needs a pretext which I just couldn't put my finger on.

Two further characters offset the central couple. Jan Knightley's Coach preaches sober realism in the same mould as Brian Glover's PE teacher in Kes but with compassion in place of belligerent pride. Around all this, and in keeping with the Tempest-like subject of magic realism, water and competition, an Ariel figure (Arion) articulates some sort of lyric, hidden truth. Gloria Onitiri's performance is - ironically, for such a mystic component - the most beautifully annunciated in the distanced acoustics of the space and even involves some competent singing (completing the Tempest allusion).

Amphibians is not an analytic work. It doesn't provide answers or explanation for the drive, experience and fallout of elite sportsmanship. On the other hand it does make a palpable connection with their essence (not least, I might add, in the use of the space, another of the company's claims fulfilled). I can recommend the show to anyone interested, particularly those who might still be scratching their heads, wondering exactly of what the artistic tie-in to the coming Olympic Games might consist.

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