What is evolution? Depending on who you ask in ‘Out of Water’, it’s either a bloody survival of the fittest or adaptation to an ever-changing world, where ‘normal’ isn’t a fixed thing – like an ape learning to swim. The tension between these two views drives Zoe Cooper’s wonderful new play at the Orange Tree Theatre.
The latter is writer Elaine Morgan’s theory of the ‘aquatic ape’, which she published in 1972 as a rebuttal to male-centric theories of evolution. And it’s what non-binary schoolkid Fish shares as their origin story to new teacher Claire, who’s just arrived, pregnant, in northern coastal town South Shields, with her wife Kit.
As oh-so-southern Claire struggles to cope with her new surroundings, buffeted by the weather and new neighbours (including Kit’s family), Cooper’s script is often sharply funny and well observed. But it doesn’t sneer at the inhabitants of an industry-gutted town that has effectively been abandoned by the south. Her flawed, believable characters spring brilliantly off the page.
It’s also great to see a play that puts a lesbian couple at its centre and deals so thoughtfully with gender identity. Relocating to South Shields exposes Claire and Kit’s anxiety about their sense of who they are. Are they the one who ‘passes’ and the ‘husband’? Imminent parenthood throws up a churn of questions.
Director Guy Jones makes great use of the in-the-round Orange Tree stage, as Lucy Briggs-Owen, Zoe West and Tilda Wickham play multiple characters while talking to the audience. Scenes flow fluidly as Jess Bernberg’s lighting and Helen Skiera’s sound design marry seamlessly with the script to vividly conjure time and place.
Briggs-Owen imbues Claire’s moments of floundering with the right balance of good intention and selfishness, while West excels at cracking Kit’s default bravado with bruised vulnerability. She’s also creepily unpleasant in a secondary role as the embittered male PE teacher whose outlook only allows for life to be the survival of the fittest.
As Fish, Wickham is initially clenched and withdrawn, dreaming of being free among the waves, like the aquatic ape. And ‘Out of Water’ doesn’t shy away from their hardship; it’s not a fairytale. But what makes this play truly sing is the hope at its heart. A woman stands holding her wife’s hand. Society can evolve.