Airswimming, Bread & Roses Theatre - Review

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland


The 20th century was a time for great social change, most of it from the tireless efforts of campaigners and seldom without physical upheavals of some description. The early 1900s saw the rise of the Suffragette movement, the response of the reactionary status quo being to use violence and incarcerate women – sometimes in conventional jails, sometimes in psychiatric institutions. Women who showed ‘deviant’ behaviour could be locked away, as the Establishment treated them as the ‘enemy within’. Fathers turned against daughters, husbands against wives.

It is in this world that Airswimming begins – within St Dymphna’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Written by Charlotte Jones and directed by Stephanie Goodfellow, the play begins in the 1920s with the arrival of Persephone Baker (Alison Nicol) who is immediately put on cleaning duties with Dora Kitson (Tanya Chainey). While Persephone is initially certain there has been an error why she’s brought there, time will show that it was her own father who ordered her confinement.

The play covers the next 50 years, but rather than follow a liner path, it jumps back and forth in time, teasing us with bits of information. Dora grows to be a big fan of Doris Day, singing her back catalogue at any given moment. It has to be said the resemblance of Nicol’s singing voice to Day’s is uncanny! Dora puts up with the songs and Persephone’s repetitive questions with stoicism, grateful at least have someone to talk to.

While Persephone is talkative and full of energy (if not a little forgetful and flighty) Dora is calmer, erudite and much more focused, with near limitless capacity for patience. Nothing getting her down (most of the time)…

From time to time, during their long stretch inside, they both indulge in imagining their fantasies. When they do, they adopt their alter egos Dorph and Porph. These incidents, among other things shown, can be rather funny and show the play walks that fine balance between tragedy and comedy.

It did occur to me that this play which ruminated on existence and the meaning of it all, at times it has a Waiting For Godot vibe. The reoccurrence of Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera) throughout the play is no coincidence. This ode to fatalism is a reminder of the choice that don’t have, locked away for half a century. And while Persephone’s escapists state of mind has in some ways been a boon in the long run, Dora has always come across as being compos mentis. Even for the most resilient of minds, there’s only so much it can take…

© Michael Davis 2016

Airswimming runs at the Bread & Roses Theatre, London, until 25th June. It will next be performed at the Edinburgh Festival at Sweet Grassmarket (Venue 18) August 4-14 (3:55pm).

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