With “Swimming,” which is currently established at the Pleasance’s Queen Dome, the writer Jane Upton has a choice to make. The play is set in a beachside café on the Isle of Wight and it is initially good to just sit back and listen to it chattering away. One senses, however, that it would be irresponsible for this play to continue for much longer without the imposition of some cold, dark realism. The seaside is always a sad place in Fringe theatre; there can be no returning to Victorian seaside innocence and you could never have a Fringe play set in a modern seaside town (Morrissey: “Come! Come! – Nuclear bomb!”) in which everybody had a wonderful time. Predictably perhaps, the sky darkens, the hugely rolling sea is suddenly horrible, and as shadows swoop down over the beach, you shiver…
But I like the stuff in the café. When the chef Jack (Jack Bense) is wrangling with the waitresses, “Swimming” is as merry as Punch and Judy. It is still hard to be grateful – this play’s achievement is to replicate the exact banter and aggravation that you would get if you were really at work. Once the café staff are quarrelling about dividing the tips, I am unexpectedly back there, looking at this play through eyes which should be shut at this time of the day. Upton has been indeed out in the field, working for roughly the same IoW café which her play portrays. The setting is doubly unfortunate since some of us in this Fringe audience will be seasonal workers ourselves, and just as impatient with tourists and tourist attractions as our IoW equivalents.
Yet, when it comes, the transition is spot-on. The writing and acting prove equally adept at extracting a tragedy from the comedy and turning the wine seamlessly to water. Moreover, it is the sort of tragedy that you might follow every day at work, as bare and shabby as the corners that it plays out in.
There are three characters and their sexual banter is all talk. Jack is the typical aimless teenager from the modern workplace; his head has been apparently filled up by Frankie Boyle and he is excited by the hope that a CGI-style apocalypse might be imminent. Sweaty and constantly uncomfortable, he looks like a boy who wanks. Lucy (Jessica Madsen) is tall, blonde and perfect, like a spaceship princess in a 1950s sci-fi movie. Her powerful theoretical beauty coexists with a reality which is awesomely unattractive. We might think that Milly (Grace Watts), the supposedly sensible alternative, is more beautiful, but she is, in fact, equally repulsive. Her secrets are squalid and unremarkable; she is at heart as unsentimental as a crab.
Upton has been reincarnated from a previous life in which she wrote a monologue called “Bones” (2011) for the Fringe, which Tychy did not think very much of. “Swimming” is greatly more ambitious and successful. The only weak point in the play is a textbook-psychology motivation for Jack’s wretchedness, involving a father who had drowned himself. It might be more persuasive if Jack was simply afraid of swimming. But this does not significantly detract from the play’s realism and if all of the comedy is swept out to sea, the drama goes swimmingly.