When a play involves actors sharing copious snacks with the audience, you know you’ve got your money’s worth. When those snacks give an intense sugar high that’s matched by the buzz of the performers as they devour the script and ad-lib on top of it, you leave the theatre a little lighter and giddier. You remember why good theatre is as addictive as a brightly-coloured packet full of E-numbers.
Wild Swimming pairs present-day language, music, food and accessories with a trip through time, starting around the turn of the 17th century. It then skims through the years whilst always remaining on a Dorset beach. Its seemingly immortal characters are “rich bitch” Nell (Alice Lamb) and ambitious poet – or “smug f***”- Oscar (Annabel Baldwin), who riff off each other with a love-hate relationship that demands attention. They dance about to the addictive sound of Sur La Planche, by the band La Femme, then throw insults at each other and change costumes with impeccable speed.
A few minutes into the play, it’s revealed Oscar and Nell had a one-night stand years before, which Nell refers to as an “enjoyable 11 seconds”; they belong together in some shape or form – it’s just whether that should be as friends, enemies or husband and wife. The will-they-won’t-they tension isn’t from the clichéd rom-com playbook, thanks to Marek Horn’s script; if you buy the play text at the end of the show, you’ll see how fun his stage directions are too.
Both characters enjoy swimming, hence the play title, but Nell faces conventions in each time period, especially when faced with 1800s ‘bathing machine’ etiquette. The act of swimming is, of course, hard to replicate on stage, so Oscar and Nell resort to being squirted with water by audience members with spray bottles as well as more extreme devices. This makeshift set design is contrasted with Oscar’s idealistic approach to swimming, linked to his literary heroes. In the wrong hands this could all be middle class arty fluff, but Lamb and Baldwin’s chemistry, coupled with director Julia Head’s guidance, creates the perfect beachside storm.
Every time Nell or Oscar get serious or self-pitying, the other jumps in with a sarcastic comment or moves off stage and into the audience to drive things forward. The fourth wall is incredibly flimsy, and they play up to this with impeccable comic timing; one lady in the audience slips off to go to the toilet just as Nell leaves the stage, and Oscar says (without missing a beat), “I think someone’s coming with you,”. Another bit of ad-libbing sees Nell snap back, “It’s press night, so I’m just handing them a quote.”
Though I didn’t want Wild Swimming to end, it does works well as an hour-long piece It should definitely engage a wide theatre audience for its inventiveness and no-f***s-given attitude.
Written by: Marek Horn
Directed by: Julia Head
Produced by: Ruby Gilmour
Box Office: 0117 987 7877
Booking Link: https://bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/wild-swimming
Booking Until: This show has completed its current run