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Swim: Theatre Review

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It’s hard to create new work – sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

It’s brave for theatres to commission new work – sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t.

It’s hard to review a piece written/devised to honour a dear friend in a time of loss and grieving. But it has to be done.


Swim is a new work, conceived by Liz Richardson and created and performed by her, Josie Dale-Jones, Sam Ward and musician/composer, Carmel Smickersgill.

In part, Swim is about the challenges and joys of wild swimming, which, as the name suggests, involves going for a dip in the nation’s rivers, lakes and (not entirely legally) reservoirs. Swimming costumes are optional, though wetsuits may be advisable (given the ambient temperature of UK open waters).

With an acknowledgement to Cruse Bereavement Care, Swim is also inspired by a bereavement suffered by a close friend and fellow wild swimmer, whose identity Richardson thoughtfully withholds.

“I want it to be for her, not about her,” she tells us.

One can sympathise with Richardson’s stance, even applaud her sensitivity, but it is this approach that leads Swim, in its current form, into difficulties, since this (understandable) reluctance shifts the natural point of axis – the point at which the revitalising activity of wild swimming smashes onto the dark rock of grieving – out to the periphery, instead of at the fulcrum, where it belongs.

The gap left behind is filled by incorporating material better fitted to a post-show discussion – anecdotes of how the performers came to be involved, tales (some of it on video) of their first time swimming in open water, questions posed by other performers to Richardson about her experiences, etc.

Richardson’s co-creators and co-performers, Josie Dale-Jones and Sam Ward, are charming and personable stage presences, bringing warmth and a little humour to the hour-long show.  However, as things stand, it is hard to see their contribution as anything other than an extended attempt at deflection. Grief hurts. It can turn even life’s consoling, regenerating activities into exquisite tortures, alchemising the softest waters into sandpaper. Attempting to shield oneself or beloved others from the process of grieving – albeit with the best of intentions – will make it all the harder to come through.

James Dawson provides a video backdrop that works best in the finale, with a powerful image of a lone swimmer, filtered almost to semi-abstraction, sculling her way diagonally across the screen. It captures something of solitude or of loneliness, of serenity or of inconsolable grief.

As a work in progress, Swim still has some way to go. There are promising elements: Carmel Smickersgill’s eerie, almost subaquatic compositions take us, half-floating, half-drowning, through the blunt poetry of Richardson’s more intimate reflections and revelations. But take out the occasional playful choreography, the “interviews” and the in-show-post-show-discussion and we’d be left with a very listenable 30 minute audio-documentary for Radio 4.

Hard, very hard, though it would be, perhaps Swim should be both for her and about her.

Swim was reviewed at Home, Manchester on 10 July 2019. It is at Pleasance Courtyard as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from 2-12 and 14-26 August 2019.

Written by
Martin Thomasson

A winner (with Les Smith) of the Manchester Evening News award for Best New Play, Martin taught script-writing at the universities of Bolton and Salford, before becoming an adjudicator and mentor for the 24:7 theatre festival. Over the years, in addition to drama, Martin has seen more ballet and contemporary dance than is wise for a man with two left feet, and much more opera than any other holder of a Grade 3 certificate in singing.

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Martin Written by Martin Thomasson