Writer: The Company
Scripted by: Robert Farquhar
Director: Mark Smith
Reviewer: Laura Maley
Three men in a boat, and who do you think they are? The posh one, the simple one and the manic one, on the edge. Spike Theatre’s Sink or Swim is an inventive 75 minute marking the company’s 15th anniversary.
Director Mark Smith takes inspiration from the ‘ships of fools’ carrying inmates from overflowing 18th century bedlam houses to America. In Sink or Swim, a ship comes under attack (from the subsequently oft-maligned French) and three men find themselves sharing a lifeboat. They battle the elements, their situation and each other as they wait for help to arrive.
What follows is a mixture of silliness and clowning, and includes a giant octopus, as well as heated debate about the pronunciation of ‘weevil’. There are glimpses exploring weightier topics, too, with nice-but-dim Officer Gideon Oliver’s (Shaun Mason) dedication to the British class structure as he places himself immediately in charge, but later wonders where to assign as ‘breakfast room’, the morning after the wreck.
There are some really funny moments and many are in the quick-fire one-liner scenes taking place during overnight watch. In addition, Able Seaman Jim Black (Paul Duckworth) has such an expressive face and menace in his voice that he demands attention just by a glare or a sniff, though all three performers work very well together in one of the most confined performance spaces imaginable. Seeing the movement in the boat, it makes sense to learn that all three performers had a hand in devising the show along with scriptwriter Robert Farquhar.
Designer Kevin Pollard constructs a tiny world, contained on the Lowry Studio’s stage. Tarpaulins encircle the lifeboat and shroud it from the audience until after the shipwreck, which is portrayed in silhouette. It’s very inventive staging, and works well with Josh Keough’s lighting design.
Of course, this being a ‘ship of fools’ – there’s also the possibility that none of the men are who they claim to be, and that thought must cross the audience members’ minds more than once. A scene in which Swab Hand Bottle (Graham Geoffrey Hicks) thinks about many philosophical questions is amusing, and again fleetingly shows a greater depth of content. It seems that with a number of good, creative ideas in Sink or Swim, none are explored for more than a few minutes which can feel ultimately frustrating. For a viewer expecting a play, it can seem like a series of sketches.
For the audience, Sink or Swim is reliant on meeting the same sense of humour: for some there may be too much silliness, and for others there won’t be quite enough downright clowning around or surreal weirdness. But where the show really succeeds is in its inventiveness and creativity.
Runs til 9 March 2013