A diviner once told me that London’s swimming baths are often found where its rivers once were. In Cressida Brown and Steve Waters’s lovely-looking piece of theatre, a chorus of long-bodied swimmers surface dreamily from the long-dry Victorian swimming baths beneath the Bridewell’s stage. Rather magically, ‘Amphibians’ invokes the memory of water on many levels: as the element against which main characters Olympians Elsa and Max, struggle; as the river Fleet, whose pavemented course flows past the Bridewell; and as the amniotic sea which we all came from.
There’s no doubt that Offstage Theatre has uncovered the ideal location. At the Bridewell, the audience sits on steps that once descended to the deep end (wittily, reserved seats are marked with towels). There’s also a chlorine-sharp whiff of authenticity in Waters’s script, based on Brown’s interviews with professional swimmers. But the piece strains to dive deeper than the surface of documentary: hence the surprisingly poetical phrases that sporty lovers Max and Elsa (Sam Heughan and Louise Ford) throw at each other, and the way in which swimming is expressed through dance: jerky, whole-chorus routines to rythmically repetitive techno.
‘Amphibians’ clearly wants to do for swimmers what ‘Black Watch’ did for soldiers. It’s hampered in this Olympic-sized ambition by the fact that its dramatic language and story are neither completely integrated nor intensely moving.
The play is a swirling mix of flashbacks and allegory and, in a highly visual staging, you look for visual signposts, but it’s hard here to distinguish between the past, the present and the symbolic realms. And although she wears them well, I remained perplexed about why Louise Ford’s Elsa is the only swimmer who competes in lacy bra and knickers. But ‘Amphibians’ is a lovely and elusive piece of fringe theatre, despite its occasional need for firmer ground.