Waves by Alice Mary Cooper in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Writer and performer Alice Mary Cooper comes across the elderly Elizabeth Moncello in the hydrotherapy pool of the Edinburgh care home in which she works. Over the following months, they bond over their common Australian origins and Alice discovers that Elizabeth was “the unofficial inventor of the Butterfly stroke”.

Brought up on a small island off the coast of Australia, Elizabeth’s family fear the sea and choose not to teach their children to swim. Following a tragic accident, she moves from loathing the ocean to conquering it, developing an ability to swim through copying the movements of animals and fish. Through sheer determination, she becomes an Olympic gold medallist before WWll interrupts her career. Having learned that many soldiers drown in war as they are taught to fight but not to swim, Elizabeth uses her self-developed techniques to help train ANZACS. In later life she marries a Scot, moves to Edinburgh and teaches swimming to schoolchildren.

The play opens and closes with Elizabeth’s obituary notice, and prompts us to think how these small notices are not the sum of a life.

Cooper uses a storytelling style which is engaging, and especially appealing to the younger members of the audience. Although she is very expressive there are times when the mimed segments continue longer than necessary. Gill Robertson’s direction provides Alice with precise, economical movements and gestures which are very effective. The soundscape created by Danny Crass really draws the audience in and is especially successful at bringing the ocean into the space.

On exit, the audience was handed the programme, which included the following:
“Creator’s Note
... While the character is fictional... I was interested in creating a work that paid homage to pioneering female swimmers of the early 1900’s... I also felt that too many women ‘of a certain age’ particularly from that era disappeared without a trace. Even though Elizabeth may not have existed I am certain incredible people like her did, but were not recorded by history’s grand narrative.”

Until this point, the piece had been presented as if it was a biography, certainly the flyer and blurb gave the impression of a true story. Reading the programme, it came as quite a shock to discover that this was a fictional play as opposed to an interpretation using artistic license. It feels almost like a betrayal of the audience to imply it is true and colours the whole experience differently.

It also begs the very serious question - if Alice Mary Cooper wished to pay homage to the incredible women of the 1900’s, why didn’t she choose one who actually existed? It would be even more powerful to celebrate a real unsung hero. Whilst the show is well written and performed, it’s hard to see why the choice was made to be unclear that Elizabeth is an invented character.

Waves is on at The Old Lab, Summerhall, Tuesdays-Sundays until 28th August

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