Writer: Zoe Cooper
Director: Guy Jones
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Zoe Cooper’s last play Jess and Joe Forever was a big hit for The Orange Tree Theatre in 2016, and her new play Out Of Water seems certain to repeat that success. A lyrical examination of gender’s position in evolution and, importantly, the education system, Out Of Water is nothing less than remarkable.
Londoner Claire has moved to South Shields, and in the first scene we see her welcomed into the school that she has just started work in. She is bringing some new teaching ideas and new jargon to the school that Ofsted every year declares ‘requires improvement’. Not all her colleagues are taken with her, and Brendan, the sports science teacher seems particularly hostile to her vision for ‘Pupil Premium Pupils.’ He tells Claire that she should treat the schoolchildren as apes that have only just come down from the trees.
However, a pupil called Fish, and who goes by the pronoun ‘they’ is interested in another kind of evolution, that of an aquatic ape, a mammal that returns to the ocean. The sea, Fish believes, is a great leveller where gender is unnecessary. Fish is in the care-system and their search for the origin of species is the search for their own beginnings.
Amid all these versions of evolution is Claire’s suspicion that South Shields is a lot less evolved than the liberal South. While happily out as a lesbian in London, she feels that she has to hide the fact that her spouse is a woman. She senses homophobia everywhere, but staying in the closet will not help her queer pupils who are desperately in need of a role model.
Out Of Water is teeming with ideas and Cooper is not afraid of being didactic, although it helps that her script is poetic, but still naturalistic. The three actors deliver these lines and embody these characters with skill and ease. Their performances are real tours de force. As Claire, Lucy Briggs-Owen is sympathetic, and a London audience quickly identifies with her. Tilda Wickham is staggeringly good as she flips from the prim and condescending head teacher to the cool isolation of Fish, while Zoe West as Kit, Claire’s wife, is utterly convincing with her Northern friendliness and chatter. All three play Brendan, an imaginative casting that works wonders.
It’s a talky play, but it’s never trapped by its own musing. Space is provided by Camilla Clarke’s initially simple set of plastic chairs and strip lighting representing the average classroom. When the set does give up its secrets, the effect is so dramatic that it, unfortunately, diverts the attention from a crucial scene between Fish and Claire. Likewise, Jess Bernberg’s lights are sometimes too fussy, flicking on and off when a character is narrating the story. The audience members don’t need this visual clue to work out that the character is talking to them rather than a fellow actor.
But it’s easy to forgive these minor flaws when the rest of the production is so confidently staged and expertly acted. That this play has a future after its Orange Tree run is clear, but any future iteration surely couldn’t match the intelligence of this one.
Runs until 1 June 2019 | Image: The Other Richard