Representation of women is a major conversation in the arts industry right now. The embarrassing statistics are being written up and published everywhere, revealing that women are certainly present, but not given the opportunities to perform, write and direct that they should be.
The King’s Head Theatre’s current season is a response to these statistics, and directly to Hampstead Theatre artistic director Edward Hall’s open letter saying that although he would like to produce work by women playwrights, under their constrained, ACE-poorly-funded budget, there aren’t any excellent works to produce. Titled Who Runs The World? – is an act of defiance, a throwing down of gauntlet, a declaration that if big, ACE-funded theatres aren’t going to do the work to support and represent women in the arts industry, then they’ll do it themselves (Editor’s note: Although it’s also worth adding that the season has attracted criticism for its all-white line-up).
As for Sarah Milton’s one-woman show Tumble Tuck, it’s more of a throwing down of a swimming cap and goggles, a representation of being a woman, of growing up, trauma, and swimming. It’s an exhilarating play to watch (particularly as a swimmer myself), paced and spaced out like one long, branching and meandering thought process. The bubbling sounds of the water at the public pool, and the low hum of the pump filtering the chlorinated water are the production’s white noise. The flimsy plastic bunting flags marking five meters to the wall hang on either side of the stage.
Milton’s Daisy stands before us in her black and pink racing suit and matching pink swim cap, nervously tugging and adjusting her swimsuit, always making sure everything fits and is covered. She jumps up and down and shimmies her legs in that familiar, panicked exhilaration as she steps up onto the diving blocks. And then she dives… and the stage glows deep blue, and Daisy’s swim turns into a dance. It’s a bit clumsy – her hands don’t turn the right way, she over-rotates her torso, and she only just remembers to breathe. But it’s her race.
Daisy takes us from the moment of her big race, to her first medal, to her trying relationship with her mother, to her imprisoned ex-boyfriend, to her perfectly built and tapered swim captain Kath, to the reason she started swimming in the first place. Daisy’s story has many twists and turns, and Milton deftly performs all of Daisy’s painful conversations, bringing her cast of characters to life with depth and realness all through changes in posture, voice and accent. Milton lets the serious moments hang in the air, but also uses the tension to create excellent comedic timing in off-hand, understated comments.
Tom Wright’s direction ascribes specific parts of the stage to specific characters, making each relationship uniquely defined through movement and blocking. When Daisy stumbles in on Kath being sick in the pool changing room, the rest of the room turns to black, as Daisy’s vision of Kath’s perfection is stripped away, leaving two women coping with the pressure to succeed in two very different ways. Daisy wonders, “Will I have to be sick to succeed?”
Swimming is not what I would call a theatrical sport. It’s certainly very dramatic, and has all of the elements of a good, high-suspense narrative: the start, the personal stakes, the struggle through the water, the moments of near-failure, and the triumph of hitting the finish. But it’s not theatrical – it’s not a narrative journey that anyone watching a swimmer might see, it’s only for the person in the water.
This is what Daisy loves about swimming – what I love about swimming – and what the production in its direction and writing wonderfully stages by taking that internal journey and transforming it into a watery dance. Daisy only ever wears her swimsuit, her half of a friendship necklace, and a zip-hoodie. We are seeing her at her most vulnerable, most exposed, but also when she is most herself. It’s wonderful to see swimming used so poetically beyond the metaphor of freedom, a world without limits, the idea that if you set a goal and work hard, you will succeed. Here, swimming is both a representation of and means for Daisy’s independence, self-actualisation and self-worth.
For Daisy, swimming is a rejection of the pressure to work oneself to death for a medal and a perfect body. “I swim because I love my body, not because I hate it,” she realises. She doesn’t swim to win against others; unlike anything else in her life, she swims for herself.
Tumble Tuck is at the King’s Head Theatre until May 12th. For more details, click here.