Airswimming is the debut play of Charlotte Jones. A two-hander, it shows a couple of mentally unstable ladies in a 1920s mental institution. The action takes place over a span of 50 years at St Dymphna’s Hospital. Persephone (Alison Nicol) is an upbeat sheltered debutante, who throughout reveals that she was admitted due to having an illegitimate child with a man much older than her. Dora (Tanya Chainey) is the opposite: a transsexual who feels guilty for her brothers’ deaths, she is harsh and straight-faced with a love of the military.
The set and stage are small, with scatterings of things that mean something to the two, such as Doris Day posters and books. The space is barely long enough for them to pace, and with little movement aside from the ‘air swimming’, most action takes place between two chairs. Throughout they are dressed in aged attire of plain blouses and brown skirts. During the piece there are subtle lighting changes and hints of sound (by Nigel Dams) to show the switch between their two personalities. Hinting at their mental instability, we see them switch from one reality to the other and converse about their circumstances. Nicol and Chainey have such a good crack at this material: they are relentless in their energy and commitment to the characters. Their characters reach the edge of their sanity and even if they had originally been of sound mind, they would have still been clawing at the walls. Their relationship to each other is never stable, moving from angry to amicable in a second. We are left wondering if anything that is said even means anything, or if they will remember it in the next sentence.
A spirited attempt to revive Charlotte Jones’s play, director Stephanie Goodfellow has done her best with the material given. Yet she has unfortunately missed the point and failed to bring the piece into something we understand, care or even feel anything about. I found the play unrelenting: just as it’s supposedly set over fifty years, so did I think it went on for fifty years. Aside from discovering their basic back stories, most of the conversation is meaningless and adds nothing to the plot. From entering the institution to the end, they discover nothing about themselves and so neither did we as an audience. As the setting is so far removed, it almost feels like the actors didn’t believe themselves, which left me wondering how exactly we are expected to find them relatable. The drama is introverted, which left me gasping for air and wondering about all the other circumstances of their world, which perhaps could be the point. We know nothing but them, and they are going mad talking about nothing.
Airswimming is playing at the Bread and Roses Theatre until 25 June. For more information and tickets, see the Bread and Roses Theatre website.