BWW Review: OUT OF WATER, Orange Tree Theatre
The omens were good for the Orange Tree Theatre's new production, Out Of Water. Writer Zoe Cooper created the beautiful Jess and Joe Forever back in 2016 and Guy Jones directed the heartbreaking Mayfly last year. The result is a smart, inventive and moving play with a huge heart.
The setting is South Shields and couple Claire and Kit have moved from their frenetic life in London to be nearer to Kit's family and start a family of their own. As they try and settle into their new surroundings, teacher Claire struggles to fully adapt.
Their town is struggling economically, some people have less liberal attitudes than they had in London and it is cold and dark. Claire then meets Fish, a gender-neutral teenager who confides in her about their life and background. When it becomes clear that Claire is not as truthful and honest about her own life and situation, there is an inevitable and dramatic backlash.
The play covers issues of gender, belonging and self-identification. It raises thought-provoking questions about acceptance and the accepted roles of men and women, whilst simultaneously following the stories of a couple and a teenager feeling their way through life when their surroundings constantly challenge them.
Zoe Cooper employs similar creative techniques as Jess and Joe Forever; the three actors are narrators, as well as acting out a variety of characters. It is a very successful and clever method; in part due to the highly believable dialogue and events detailed by Cooper and in part due to the brilliant versatility and plausibility of all three actors involved.
It is often the mundane and everyday events that are the most poignant; an elderly couple passing a packet of crisps between them as one sits in a hospital bed, Kit wistfully describing the crab sandwiches she ate as a child.
In this powerful three-hander, there are no weak links. All three actors are completely convincing and show impressive ability to deftly move between characters in an instant.
Tilda Wickham is very convincing as Fish. The only place they feel comfortable is in the water and Wickham's physical representation of a teenager uncomfortable in their own body is immersive; shoulders hunched, jaw and fists clenched. The transitions into the Scottish lilt of the diminutive Headmistress, the petulant attitude of pupil Hayley and the overly reassuring nurse at the hospital are seamless.
Zoe West is amiable and extremely likeable as Kit; a woman very comfortable in her skin and with her life. West also shows remarkable flexibility as other characters, particularly straight-talking PE teacher Brendan and challenging pupil Dylan, slouching in her chair and resentfully hunching over with a cap over her eyes.
Lucy Briggs-Owen is a ball of nervous energy and anticipation as Claire. She conveys Claire's middle-class anxiety and internal conflict as she truly wants to embrace the new life she now has in South Shields with Kit, but cannot stop her underlying unease at the 'pig-ugly' cul-de-sacs and the terrible weather. She is earnest and has good intentions, but fails to realise that success in her job and relationship relies on her own honesty, as well as that of others.
As Literary Associate of the Orange Tree, Director Guy Jones has a wealth of experience of using the unique space of the theatre. In this production, the direction is careful and effective. Every corner is used, along with a long ladder and the actors often using chairs alongside the audience. The effect is immersive and very engaging.
Camilla Clarke's design is simple with parquet flooring and blue plastic chairs. Jess Bernberg's strip lighting is very reminiscent of school; it is suitably stark and harsh, but is also occasionally too bright to sit underneath due to the proximity of the audience to the action.
It is so refreshing when a theatre embraces its ability to make interesting creative decisions. Out of Water is one of the best examples of the power of theatre to spark thought, debate and, hopefully, acceptance.
Photo Credit: The Other Richard