FringeReview UK 2019
Guy Jones directs this joint Orange Tree Theatre and RSC production, with Camilla Clarke’s stripped-back parquet floor design enveloped in Helen Skiera’s seascape sound, composition and singing, arranged by Sarah Dacey. Jess Bernberg’s lighting continually flickers in winter light or bright summer. It’s Jennifer Jackson’s movement direction though that keeps this production light on its feet. Till June 1st.
‘It’s exhausting. It is exhausting to be continually having to come out to people.’ Straight-seeming teacher Claire finally explains to her policewoman wife Kit who’s never had to explain, especially here in South Shields where she was born and high-achieving wealthy Londoner Claire is the out-of-water one. And swimming for her is something frightening yet ineluctable; she’s already pregnant yet not told her new school. Or about Kit.
It’s the heart of this tender, warmly adroit play where identity is explored against the obvious, and dramatic tensions come unexpectedly as well as from obvious sources. It’s a school. Nothing is as withering as the scorn of children. Or is it? Sometimes we carry it in ourselves. Zoe Cooper’s Out of Water receives a nearly pitch-perfect production at the Orange Tree, directed by Guy Jones.
The fluidity of identity is tested as Claire shrouds her own, yet tries to help a fourteen-year-old she’s not been assigned to work with; who invites a glimpse of someone who stands for theirs despite every disadvantage.
Jones helms a play where two of the cast singing northeast coast shanties with a salt slap – at the start of each of the three acts – launches a mobility, the evocation of a coast with multi-roling flickering in and off the faces of the three actors like northlight.
Camilla Clarke’s stripped-back parquet floor and gallery, with blue seats replacing the front row like a school assembly hall, ladder and a few very well-sprung surprises is enveloped in Helen Skiera’s seascape sound, composition and that singing, arranged by Sarah Dacey. Jess Bernberg’s lighting continually flickers in winter light or bright summer. It’s Jennifer Jackson’s movement direction though that keeps this production light on its feet, and that’s important as Cooper’s deft intercutting text demands a lucid volatility.
There’s a fish-tank in one corner. And at one point David Attenborough’s voice. To hear Tilda Wickham’s Fish at one moment lip-synching him is another frisson of identity-shift, and wonderful theatre. Fish has learnt a huge amount about the natural world, yet science-arbiter Brendan scorns it, and her aquatic apes. Yet it’s this theme that triumphs.
Though Lucy Briggs-Owen plays Claire throughout – inevitably making her the alien centre of a drama where everyone else is local – even she takes on one of the two main characters played by Wickham when they confront each other, and it’s a delicious switch from everything foregoing. Wickham’s Fish is a fourteen-year-old in social care who now feels far more comfortable with ‘they’, and Wickham’s unreconstructed science master Brendan is her polar opposite.
Wickham too inhabits the quizzical not entirely convinced Head Teacher who takes on Claire as someone high-achieving who can take on the Pupil Premium Pupils in the Inclusion Class in this ‘Requires Improvement’ school. Brendan though gets consistently better results than anyone else. He puts it down to old-fashioned discipline. Wickham also prods Claire with Hailey who wants to have babies (and assumes Claire’s man is ‘really really hot’), Karen the tactless partying drunk and Kit’s gentle accepting mum who offers Kit and pregnant Claire rosé: a stroke of exquisite gentle comedy. Kit’s Zoe West takes up rapper Dylan.
This multi-roling certainly splinters identity further, making it as fluid as the work’s theme, and particularly too in Cooper’s continual shift from direct action to narration. Sashaying in and out of story is both enchanting yet occasionally in the second act a little patchy: it’s not quite clear how disparate discrete narratives draw together, though it certainly becomes so. A tiny eddy at this point gathers up quickly enough. Especially as a climactic scene is viewed by Fish, who’s in her element: ‘I was out in the water and I was watching all this.’
The explosive climax and its long outfall show how Cooper handles heartbreak as quiet as denying your partner’s name on your next-of-kin form, leaving it to a prissy disapproving southern mother (given imaginary vent earlier by Claire). But it’s as redemptive in the quiet of rooting out Japanese bindweed and Claire’s own witness to a dilemma none of the warm plain-speaking people have grasped. All against an elderly couple agog to hear these extraordinary revelations, turning up hearing-aids so loud they whistle.
Thematically Cooper’s play loads every rift with ore, and it would have been good to see Elaine Morgan’s aquatic ape theme – so lucent in the closing paragraphs – somehow developed a bit more in Fish. It’s discussed quite extensively in the programme and is clearly important. Fish leaps not so much in and out of water as plot, since it’s the binary of the couple and not her non-binary exploration that’s highlighted. But at a little under two hours ten it’s freighted enough. It might have made the end even more moving, but as it is it’s one of the most heart-warming since David Eldridge’s very different Beginning.
The three actors are consummate. Briggs-Owen nicely balances sympathy and occasional prissiness and breaks it open so you don’t make the mistake of seeing it all tender north versus uptight south. West layers Kit in sympathy and hurt with some gruff Newcastle laddishness thrown in, with gradations of patient enquiry, quietly allaying fright elsewhere. Wickham’s the most protean of all, playing a range from crystalline head teacher through Fish and Brendan to baby-yearning waifs and drunks. The actors’ reciprocity flashes across their faces and swivels, confirming the sublime mobility, indeed fluidity of this play.
It’s a solid landing though and we can look for even more ingenious structures underpinning emotional depth. This is Cooper’s second production at the Orange Tree; the kind of play this wonderful venue is made for. Anything Cooper writes now must be keenly anticipated.