Airswimming Review

Bread & Roses Theatre June 21 – 25.  Reviewed by Claire Roderick

Charlotte Jones’ Airswimming portrays the friendship that develops between two women inside St Dymphna’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane. This doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but Jones has managed to interweave bittersweet comedy and tragic revelations to create a life affirming piece of theatre that also includes Doris Day’s greatest hits – what’s not to love?

Persephone (Alison Nicol) is admitted to St Dymphna’s in the 1920’s, unsure of why she is there. For an hour each day, she is given “polishing duty” with Dora (Tanya Chainey) – an “unhinged, cigar smoking monomaniac transsexual”. Initial dislike turns to a strong love and the play follows the co-dependent relationship over 50 years, as they are left to rot in the institution by their families.

The story jumps through time from the 20s to the 70s – signalled by lighting changes and increasingly less subtle changes in the characters’ demeanour. This can get very confusing, and I occasionally lost track of which decade was being visited, but it helps the audience share some of the characters’ loosening grip on reality and empathise with Dora’s fretting over not knowing which year it was.

When the reasons for Persephone’s family committing her are eventually revealed and she reads the doctor’s diagnosis of “moral imbecile”, the injustice, brutality and hypocrisy of pre-war Britain are laid bare.

Alison Nicol portrays Persephone’s disintegration from uptight, but hopeful young lady to childlike fantasist and Doris Day superfan with a delicate touch. The impish look on her face as she puts on her Doris wig is a wonderful contrast to her heartbreaking performance as she talks about her lost child.

Tanya Chainey channels Lt. George from Blackadder goes forth to give Dora an upbeat and annoyingly cheerful air in the 20s. Dora’s unravelling over the years is more shocking, as this strong woman seemed to find a silver lining in every situation. (Her admiring account of St Dymphna’s tragic life is ridiculously funny.) Watching her decide to trepan herself so that she can feel happy is awful, but very funny.

The actors have a wonderful chemistry and time their responses and looks to perfection.

Nothing really happens in this play – instead we just watch these two remarkable women find ways to cope with their fate. Their fantasies and memories merge and become magical moments, none more so than their airswimming – a wonderfully simple yet effective piece of gentle and precise choreography matched by deliciously evocative music.

The switching back and forth in time feels right for the story, until the end, where it becomes a little muddled and feels a bit like the end of The Lord of the Rings film, where there appears to be ending after ending ad infinitum. Apart from this, which left me a little underwhelmed, Airswimming is a clever and absorbing play that ultimately celebrates the human spirit that is well worth seeing.