As theatrical subject matter goes, competitive swimming isn’t a well-trodden path. Perhaps that’s the draw of Cressida Brown’s superb new show Amphibians, as part of you wonders how on earth she’s going to pull it off. Thanks to a tight script from Steve Waters and Brown’s own imaginative direction, she does, resulting in a fascinating and compelling insight into the raw win-or-lose realities of life as an elite swimmer, where ‘water and time’ are all that count.
Brown’s original idea was spawned four years ago when she interviewed several former-professional swimmers, a few of whom were present as distinguished broad-shouldered silhouettes in the press night audience. It is their real life stories and insider knowledge that bring depth and colour to the play and its two central characters, Max (Sam Heughan) and Elsa (Louise Ford), who are awkwardly reunited at the beginning, bound by both their sporting careers and romantic history.
The play lurches between this meeting and flashbacks to their training which transported them from gangly teenagers to Olympic competitors, interspersed with ghostly music and some brilliant physical theatre from the 13 strong chorus, choreographed by Movement Director Kate Sagovsky. Georgina Lowe’s transformation of the set, by all accounts, is extraordinary, as the stage normally covering the original Victorian swimming pool is stripped back, the walls painstakingly painted by hand and strung with ghostly light bulbs that flash and crackle to indicate the passing from past to present.
The swimming-costumed cast make excellent use of this beautiful space, slithering up from the pool area, clambering down the iron spiral staircases and from inside (presumably backless) lockers like magicians’ assistants. Ford and Heughan deliver strong performances (bar a few instances where Heughan garbled his words) while Jan Knightley provides excellent light relief as the acerbic swimming coach.
With the Olympics just around the corner, there’s no better time to go and see this show, which so successfully breaks down the immense psychological and physical pressure of being an elite sportsperson – certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Amphibians by Steve Waters, 4-28 January 2011. Directed by Cressida Brown. Offstage Theatre at the Bridewell, 14 Bride Lane, Fleet Street, London EC4Y 8EQ. For tickets and information, please visit the website.