Grief can feel like drowning. And in Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play about a swimmer with the challenge to cross the Channel, it is voluminous.
Not a natural athlete, she’s doing it to satisfy the dreams of her much-loved dead sister. Steady and determined, she battles against the endless waves while remembering moments from their shared 90s youth, reciting poetry or making lists to pass the time. “I’m doing this for her,” she pants, going on to order her top 10 90s songs and the top 10 nights she’s had a good time but ended up sad. Though never appearing, the spirit of her sister is inescapable.
As the swimmer, Stacey Ghent gives a marathon performance. Doing her best with an elongated script, she twirls, breaststrokes and breathes to render the difficulty of the task ahead. Flooded with sincerity, as memories from her past bleed into her present, her fight to complete the 21-mile swim becomes all the more draining.
But even with such ardent physicality, we get webbed in the weight of Lloyd Malcolm’s tendency towards repetition. Too slowly paced, the reveal of the cause of the swimmer’s sister’s death is neither unexpected nor particularly heartbreaking. The onstage presence of the swimmer’s also dead mother (Shenagh Govan) can feel overdone too; a shame as Govan’s spiteful ghostly presence is initially a feature that shows the swimmer’s body dysmorphia to be, uncomfortably, generational.
So, it is Grace Smart’s majestic underwater set we rely on to keep our attention. Tall and shadowy, the swimmer hangs, drooping, inside a netted dark cylinder. Trapped within its separated barriers, her isolation from the rest of existence is enlarged. Supported by wheeling oceanic projections designed by Gillian Tan, we are transported to the depths of the sea. Forever ebbing and flowing, its continuous movement is unending.
Directed by Chinonyerem Odimba, the result is a transfixing picture of the mental and physical anguish of grief. But at times, the design is not enough to keep the drama swimming.