What happens to elite swimmers when they retire and are they defined only by their results? That’s one of the questions that the play Amphibians, currently running at the Bridewell Theatre in London seeks to answer as it explores the impact of a life training towards the pinnacle of our sport on two athletes.
Those two athletes are Elsa and Max, former Olympians reunited years after their last hurrahs on the international stage. Told predominantly in flashback the play explores their individual journeys to the elite level, the sacrifices they made and the bond they formed along the way. The huge demands on young swimmers bound for the top are well known to many teenagers and parents up and down the country, but the narrative offers something beyond the confines of the pool itself, bringing in the relationships of Elsa and Max to their domineering coach, the media, their team-mates and each other. The setting adds significantly to the atmosphere, with the Bridewell Theatre stripped back to reveal the old Victorian pool beneath and the stage emerging from the deep end.
Swimmers will appreciate the stylised breaststroke pull outs that form the core of one dance sequence and the way that the choreography plays on the repetitive nature of training, with months of sets reduced to a parade of dressing and undressing, warm ups and repeat times.
Similarly, those who have followed the British team over the past decade may also be able to spot echoes of certain international swimmers in the two lead characters, which is perhaps unsurprising given that the research for the piece carried out by director Cressida Brown involved interviews with both current and former British Olympic swimmers Adrian Turner, Melanie Marshall, Georgina Lee, Mike Fibbens and Cassie Patten. (You can watch some of these interviews by following the link from this page)
With the benefit of those names, some of the events of the play can be understood to reflect, if not represent absolutely, actual goings on. This basis in reality and the fact that Turner is also named as a creative consultant means that the dialogue generally avoids the clunky nature and jarring inaccuracy that often characterises films about swimming and hence adds a layer of credibility to proceedings. That said some of the phrases emanating from Max and Elsa’s coach felt a bit forced, although many of the truisms – “There’s only you and the black line” for example – do hit home.
Some of the more esoteric elements of the production may not be to everyone’s tastes, but Amphibians represents an interesting, and on the whole successful, attempt at transporting swimming into an artistic setting and is therefore well worth seeking out before its run concludes.
Bridewell Theatre, EC4 London until 28 January