The morning after I see Out of Water I go to the Hampstead Ladies Pond. It is early, so there are still strands of mist clinging to the ferns clustered at the edges of the water. The air is clean, the sky is clear. The water, a thick mossy brown in the winter, has lightened in the spring air to a dark, velvet green. I flip onto my back and stare first up, at the expanse of space above my head, then down, watching my ghostly, blurred legs disappearing into the murky green depths. The Pond is deep, too deep to stand up in, but if you stray too close to the sides of the bank, the reeds reach up and twist and slip around your ankles.
One of the lifeguards here wrote an essay recently. I can’t remember the exact quote, but she said something like, “When you’ve worked here for a while, you can tell which women come because they are grieving, or healing, or still in pain.” I started coming here after a breakup, in an attempt to reclaim my body as my own. It worked. Water is equalising. It supports your body, it’s cleansing, it doesn’t let your body strain. It renews you. Your body feels realigned after you swim. I have felt drained by theatre for months now. When I left Out of Water, I rolled my neck, back and forth, testing the muscles. It felt looser.
Zoe Cooper’s new play is quietly, gently fluid. On the surface, like the Pond, it is all soft, lapping ripples. Below the surface, not immediately recognisable to the naked eye, the reeds twist and curl around each other intricately. No-one is totally bad or good in this play, as in life. Not Claire, who hides her pregnancy and her wife from her new colleagues and students, who mildly resists her new life in South Shields, who holds resentment and snobbishness towards her wife’s “ill-educated” family somewhere inside her, but who has a core of tenderness, of determination and generosity. Not Kit, Claire’s wife, who tends towards the overbearing, the defensive, (and is a queer woman who works for the police????), yet is constantly approachable and loyal, with a wiry, resilient backbone. Not Fish, who is wide-eyed, buoyant and charmingly passionate, but with a streak of recklessness bubbling under their skin. They’re all lost, somehow, trying to gain hold of a story which slips and slides out of reach, reaching out and grasping and eventually realising that maybe the best thing to hold onto is each other. Watching these actors – Lucy Briggs-Owen, Zoe West and Tilda Wickham, none of them stronger or weaker than the other, each of them supporting and holding the other two, ready to catch them when they fall – it’s like turning your face up and feeling the sun wash over your skin.
It’s strikingly, unabashedly tender, too. Possibly that’s what’s most wonderful about it. Emotion without sentimentality. This isn’t some toothless, apolitical story about discovering who you are – classism, homophobia and transphobia are all streaked through the text – they feel palpable and scary, as they should. And those strands are never fully resolved (such is life), but Cooper’s writing is steeped in so much love, and you can feel, really feel the care in Guy Jones’ dramaturgy and direction, and so these things hanging in the air don’t make the play feel unfinished, or ill-thought out. And spoiler – but no queer people die in this play. What a relief. You can write a play which engages with and critiques the ugliness of our society, but which still takes care of its audience and its characters, which still uplifts them, grants them dignity. It isn’t perfect – I wish Zoe West’s Kit had been given a little more time, and not so much had gone to Lucy Briggs-Owen’s Claire, as it feels somewhat illogical for a play so steeped in the North East to focus so heavily on the posh, Southern character (though it maybe makes sense for a fish-out-of-water story, and also for the Orange Tree’s audience demographic), but the overwhelming wave of this story is so heartfelt that you just get swept away. I would like more theatre to be like this. We all need a show like this. I didn’t realise quite how ground down, how pessimistic I’d become. In the interval, I growled “None of them had better die at the end,” so resigned was I to what seemed like the inevitable arc afforded to queer characters. I should’ve had more faith.
I swim further out into the Pond, feeling my muscles expand and contract, listening to my breath whistle in and out of my lungs. I dip my head under and when I rise up, mouth open in a gasp, eyes screwed shut, I shake my head and droplets dance over the sparkling green water, and I feel alive again.
Out of Water is on at Orange Tree theatre until 1st June 2019. More info and tickets here.