Aquabelles, performed by the cast of The League of Youth as part of the “Playhouse etc.” series of events and readings, has an enchanting central premise – a secret synchronised swimming club made up of three hairy thirty-something men, one of whom transforms into an otter. Czech playwright David Drábek explained in a post-show Q and A session that the idea came to him after seeing a male synchronised swimming group who resembled hippopotamus-like creatures straight out of Jurassic Park.
And the characters here are pretty monstrous too. The aquatic trio of Pavel, Philip and Kajetan meet at the water and share the woes they face living in the aftermath of the 1989 Velvet Revolution and facing a world that may have changed, but not necessarily for the better. They are filled with discontent, loathing and cynicism, dissatisfied with family life, fame, and empty relationships. The script is very funny, with much of the dark humour coming from Kajetan’s misanthropic attitude. Robin Kingsland is excellent in this role, especially in a scene which takes a well-aimed swipe at the ubiquitous television shows offering aspiring singers “the umbilical cord of fame”.
Meanwhile, Philip, played by Mark Jardine, has found somewhere he can feel at home, and in his element – the water. His initial reluctance to leave the water to share in the boozy post-swim picnics with the other two turns into an extended dip, and the proclamation “I want to be an otter” is swiftly followed by a decisive announcement: “I am an otter”. As he swims away, the remaining two men are left to deal with his transformation and absence. There are further surreal transformations and characterisations as the play progresses and the remaining Aquabelles find themselves on the shores somewhere in between the natural world of the water, now inhabited by their aquatic friend, and the capitalist society of their home lives, families and careers. But by the end of the play their constant vitriol, jealousy and disdain toward other people stopped being funny and became tiresome.
The League of Youth cast were excellent across the board, whether in the central roles, bringing minor characters to life, or providing sound effects. It’s a shame the peripheral female characters, as seen through the eyes of the protagonists, felt two-dimensional. David Drábek mentioned after the show that he had written a companion piece focussing on three women – perhaps these characters are more fleshed out.
This was a UK premiere of Aquabelles, which has won awards and acclaim in Europe, and it drew a large crowd to the Playroom at Nottingham Playhouse. It was exciting to see the space so full for a reading, though the staging was odd and felt frustrating. The cabaret seating created an informal atmosphere which set the tone as distinct from some of the NEAT11 main-stage shows, but with scenes happening on a central stage, and in two opposite corners, and text being projected on one end wall, the constant changing of direction was ultimately distracting.
Reviewed for Left Lion