Brighton Fringe 2022
Directed by Ella Turk-Thompson, Choreography Patti Griffiths, Steven Adams, Stage Manager Claire Prater, ASM Bradley Coffey. Set Design Lighting Sound Design Construction and Painting Steven Adams; Set Construction and Painting the Cast & Crew; Tom Williams. Lighting and Sound Operation Rob Punter; Costumes Ann Atkins, Photography Miles Davies.
With special thanks to Glenys Stuart, Tess Gill
Till May 28th
The Brighton Little Theatre revive Charlotte Jones’ debut 1997 two-hander Airswimming. Two women are incarcerated fifty years for being different. It’s the finest production of this play I’ve seen.
It’s 1924, but in a beat it’s also a time of Moulinex blenders. Dora Kitson and Persephone Baker or later Dorph and Porph (their creative alter egos) are locked up at St Dymphna’s for the Criminally Insane. In Dora’s case it’s partly for being ‘a cigar smoking monomaniac transsexual’ as Persephone first apostrophizes her; in Persephone’s for bearing a child out of wedlock. Dora’s been there since 1922; her military persona seems to cope better than Persephone’s denial of her ‘moral imbecility’: in effect her parents wall Persephone up.
Persephone’s convinced she’s about to ‘come out’ as a deb; the contrast between ‘just convalescing’ after childbirth and her parents’ inhumanity – their friend seduced Persephone – beggars belief. The two meet polishing brass, Dora admitting she’s not popular: of Persephone’s predecessor the deaf-mute: ‘her spitting gave me a clue…’
Both experience a wary then intense friendship over the years, conveyed in ways their names change and Alice Porteous’ Persephone slowly melts stiffness and clipped accent. Mimi Goddard’s Dora, more cheerfully adamantine, seems imperviously cheerful, intellectually alert, till she becomes suddenly disoriented. For briefly not remembering what year it is. Both actors are outstandingly natural: both in-role and with each other.
The characters develop coping strategies that as presented don’t flinch from trauma or the occasional dottiness anyone would develop after long incarceration, including Dora’s unravelling of Persephone’s giving birth. Persephone overcomes her qualms and offers Dora dancing lessons. Goddard’s chorography here and with the airswimming of the title are exquisite.
In a few beats Dora decides she needs to trepan her own head via a book on the subject (but it’s not Trepanning for Beginners she complains) and tries plugging in the Moulinex to effect this.
There’s an antiphonal construction: we morph back and forth in time. 1924 moves forwards to 1926 bisected by the next scene which shows us moving through the 1950s, 1958 specifically, and on till it’s 1972. The latter period’s bracketed by Persephone’s fascination with Doris Day, to the extent that Porteous playing her bursts heart-stoppingly into Day after Day standards, locating an apparent wholesomeness as refuge and alter-ego.
Never mind Dora finally reveals that Doris is both ’bland’ and ‘a dyke, a carpet-muncher’ – not usually appellations found side-by-side. When Persephone’s asks Dora if Day is a virgin Dora’s brilliant answer: ‘Not at first, but she became one’ both rescues Persephone and breaks your heart with laughter.
But Dora owns her own fragilities in Goddard’s slow-fused portrayal of a logical, forthright-seeming coper whose own mechanisms when they do falter, cascade in an arc. From historic role-models including Bolshevik women soldiers and a sense she should have died with her brothers in the Great War, Dora’s obsessions with figures and time gradually skew.
The play’s title chimes with the heart of a drama so attuned to the survival in all senses of two cruelly-used women; who fuse imaginations as Dorph and Porph to start airswimming as if at recent Olympics’ synchronised events. There’s questions – Dora coaches Persephone in imaginary release scenarios; or the way Persephone sings Dora to sleep: the dominance shifts. Porteous sashays between vulnerability – she breaks down several times singing ‘My Secret Love’ and elsewhere to soaring awkwardness – and tender watchfulness. This is exquisite, exceptional acting, the finest intimate cast I’ve seen so far this Festival.
‘What do we do now, now that we are happy?’ Estragon’s question – there’s a touch of Godot in Airswimming – bears an existential challenge when the 1970s and release looms. The creative route taken by Jones and the company here lead to frightening ambiguities.
There really is a period Moulinex in a box, indeed an unnerving array of authentic props used or dangled on a clothes-line. A much-applied wig finally tops an imaginary change of clothes involving Dora’s favourite regiment and Fifties dress as distinct from St Dymphna’s blue pinny-and-grey uniform.
Ella Turk-Thompson directs crisply with plenty of air around the swimming but ripples too. More, she works with chorographer/actor Patti Griffiths to promote fluidity in the airswimming routine, and ritual cleansing elsewhere. There’s poignancy in the pauses and dances. A bath dunk is show-stopping, not least because the show does stop as Porph takes up an aria whilst Dorph has a head dunked. Has it finally proved too much?
Steve Adams’ set recruits angled, emerald-painted menhirs abstracted in a vertical and two angles, against a deep purple backdrop. It’s a bit Wizard of Oz. A raised dais is topped by a zinc bath, and stage left a stepped construction’s become under-stepped. Like the bath it gets ritually washed. Adams’ lighting gradates spectrally as well as surreally; it’s a subtle shifting spectacle. Sound-design and music by Turk-Thompson counterposes Day (mostly) with some curious post-1970s moments. Being cast out of an asylum bears its own incarceration.
BLT often produce stunning shows. This one’s different again – something unique in my experience there: a standing ovation of such force that convention had to be broken and Goddard and Porteous were forced back on stage. They plumb a depth and tenderness that even fine previous productions I’ve seen can’t match. Airswimming underscores BLT’s gift for mounting plays that touch extremes, with actors to probe them.