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Out of Water by Zoe Cooper at The Orange Tree Theatre

Zoe West and Tilda Wickham in OUT OF WATER by Zoe Cooper - Orange Tree Theatre - photo by The Other Richard
Zoe West and Tilda Wickham in OUT OF WATER by Zoe Cooper – Orange Tree Theatre – photo by The Other Richard.

I’m a bit of a sucker for fish: freshwater, ocean-going, tropical – you name it. So when finding that the neat, in-the-round performance space for Out Of Water was dominated in one corner by a real tropical aquarium tank complete with lights, submerged plastic plant-life and, the coup de grace, a large, live, grey, long-fish contentedly moseying around its watery empire then I naturally had to traverse the playing area, unhindered by the usher, and get up close and personal with this fine specimen of tropical fish-hood.

Which is exactly what Zoe Cooper’s play does – gets up close and personal with her audience: that is partly due to the intimate space where no one is more than three rows away from the action and Guy Jones’s astute and personal direction but it’s also because of Cooper’s searingly knowing script which leaves no holds barred in creating an emotional freight train that so often, so nearly, gets out of control, that is doing its best to stay on the rails and which, one feels, is destined for an almighty great train wreck just around the next corner… or the next… or the next…

There are three main characters and each of the three principals take on all the other roles that are essential to the narrative. Cooper is very precise in her script how this should work – i.e. who says what and whether speech is real-time or reported – and in this production what is a challenging concept is blessed with a superlative cast. These three performers are able to make seamless transitions – often mid-sentence – from one character to another – and there is never a moment when you think – hang on, which one’s this? For good measure, as the play is set in South Shields, there are a lot of Geordie accents and vernacular to contend with also – but there is a bell-like clarity about all the voices however swift the changes are.

And that is appropriate because the play, essentially, is all about clarity: clarity of emotion, clarity of gender, clarity of sexuality and clarity of birth and renewal. Science has told us that we come, originally, from the sea and the character, who calls themselves Fish, wants to get back there and experience what it was like to be born of salty water and make it to land. Fish is a bit of a stroppy teenager with a chip on their shoulder who has an unexpected empathy with the science of the origin of the species which has morphed into a passionate, all-consuming, creative narrative. The North Sea is choppy and cold and unforgiving but that is not going to deter Fish from diving back to re-live their essence. Fish is played by Tilda Wickham who has the wide-eyed look of a wild-child who is more scary than scared and Wickham creates a complex AFAB character that is confident and doubtful, brash and diffident, aggressive and apologetic all in equal measure. It’s an edgy and discomfiting performance that challenges the clarity of our own emotions and gives us insight into post-millennium, social-media oriented, teenage existences that are crying out for direction and understanding and, yes, clarity.

Claire (Lucy Briggs-Owen) is that modern-day conundrum – the straight lesbian. She is pregnant, in a same-sex marriage and whenever she meets people – she’s just starting a new job – they always assume she’s straight and she finds it so exhausting to have to repeatedly be “coming out” that she doesn’t bother anymore. Clarity definitely needed! Claire hails from the south so Briggs-Owen can dust off the best china in the form of a home counties accent but is able to magically morph into Geordie whenever the situation and character demands. Claire is a proponent of “active listening” – that’s a pause to you and me (goodness knows what Harold would say) – and as Inclusion Manager in this tough, Ofsted-targeted South Shields Comprehensive her role is to inspire, motivate and engage a group of “pre-selected”, disaffected pupils who need direction and purpose. Briggs-Owen gives us empathy which cleverly flirts with, but never quite gets into, full gush and combines it with a sardonic steeliness – curled lip/flashing-eye put-downs that make this a charmingly belligerent performance. Briggs-Owen is immensely watchable and her lightness of touch belies the strength of emotion and depth of character with which she imbues the role.

Her partner, South Shields born and bred Kit, is played with delightful soft-butchiness by Zoe West. Her short frizzy hair, male-oriented garb and her chosen controversial career path (a police officer; in South Shields) belie her heart of gold and deft and generous spirit. West goes full-bolsh, though, when transitioning into fourteen-year-old pupil Dylan and expertly explores the comic potential of the character whilst retaining full respect and empathy.

West also has a remarkable singing voice shown off to full effect with her a cappella sea-folk song duets (composer Helen Skiera) with Wickham at the start of each act: an inspired decision by director Jones that creates a mood of calm beauty set against the raging of the north sea and brutal everyday realities (arranged by Sarah Dacey).

It’s always difficult to light a show in-the-round but Jess Bernberg does a sterling job in the subtle mood changes, the rugged coastline atmospherics and the gently flickering water reflections. This was my first visit back to the Orange Tree Theatre since it was housed across the road upstairs in the pub (now the Orange Tree Hotel – but still a pub) when I saw a revival of Next Time I’ll Sing To You and sat next to its writer, James Saunders. The “new” theatre (1991) is a lovely space and Out Of Water is an outstanding production of a compelling play. Make the trip if you can.

5 Star Rating

Review by Peter Yates

And we are watching the huge grey waves crashing and this is the moment when I say I have to tell you something.
Claire and her wife Kit have moved from the confines of London to the wide open coasts of South Shields.
To be nearer family, to be nearer the sea, to put down roots. To have a baby.

Claire’s new job at the local school is a step up, and she wants to make a real difference, but she soon discovers that she has as much to learn from her students as they have from her.

My name is Fish. The pronoun that I go by is they.
A tender new play about gender, wild swimming, and how we define who we are.

Lucy Briggs-Owen – Claire
Zoe West – Kit
Tilda Wickham – Fish

Guy Jones – Director
Camilla Clarke – Designer
Jess Bernberg – Lighting Designer
Helen Skiera – Sound Designer & Composer
Jennifer Jackson – Movement Director
Sarah Dacey – Musical Arrangement
Matthew Dewsbury – Casting Director

Out of Water
27 April 2019 — 1 June 2019


  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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