James is a railway signalman in the small English town of Allerton. His daily life is quiet, and mainly consists of watching commuters, tannoy announcements and, recently, swimming. At 30 years old he’s just begun lessons at the local pool, finally convinced by his lifelong idol and long-term pen pal Duncan Goodhew – who is also present, after a fashion, during the show – to tackle the challenge of learning to swim. James’s fellow learners are admittedly children but he doesn’t let that put him off. It’s not all plain sailing, however. Trouble in the form Veronica Barr, James’s 11-year-old nemesis, raises its head, and before he’s had time to think about what he’s doing, James is entered in the over-10s swimming gala. Alongside this watery rivalry a darker strand of story emerges and it is in this strand that deeper elements of love, sacrifice and memory-loss add extra dimensions to James’s deceptively simple life and underscore the reasons for his need to put the upstart pre-teen Veronica in her place so he can rise victorious, once and for all.
The show is the end result of Bristol-based group Idiot Child’s collaboration with Bristol Old Vic Ferment. The three-strong company of Jimmy Whitaker (writer/actor), Anna Harpin (writer/director) and Susie Riddell (actor/producer) have been working together since 2009, and bill themselves as “making playful and peculiar work in the South West and beyond”. Whiteaker, co-writer and performer of the one-man show, achieves both the playful and the peculiar. As James he is both endearing and vulnerable, and maintains an undercurrent of unpredictability and despair that adds tension to the hour-long piece.
Between them, Whiteaker and co-writer and director Harpin keep the narrative tripping along at a good pace and with plenty of variety. Prop-maker Chris Gylee deserves a mention for his magnificent swimming-pool centrepiece, which will be especially appreciated by sweet-toothed audience members. With a combination of video projection, movement, gentle humour and strong narrative, I Could’ve Been Better takes you through a quirky, bittersweet tale of unusual love, loneliness and unfulfilled desire – and if none of that floats your boat then at least you’ll get to make a paper aeroplane, which is also a lot of fun. Well worth an hour of your day.
I Could’ve Been Better is playing at the Pleasance Courtyard as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until the 26 of August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.