Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sink or Swim – an ambitious and innovating first production from new company Headrush, Ireland

It seems like a young actor from Ireland will stop at nothing to be famous. What starts out as a confessional piece, soon morphs into a murder mystery before settling on down as a psychological thriller as we watch Cara Fitzgerald move to London for an unsuccessful run of auditions before returning to her home town to get a part in a feature film being made on Red Cove Beach (cleverly shrunk down to a sandpit on stage).

Sink or Swim is the ambitious first production from new company Headrush, Ireland (with a comma!) formed by students who have recently graduated from creative courses at QUB. Their first solo show is a great advert for the versatility of actor Julie Lamberton who plays the central figure plus another 15 or 20 characters with whom Cara interacts. Each has a consistent accent, mannerisms and gait.

The direction physically twists and turns Lamberton during dialogue as she dances between different sides of conversations. The actor also supplies the voices for off-stage audio: news reports, phone calls and Skype chats with her Mum. It’s a real one-woman show.

Sink or Swim is exhausting to watch: mentally and physically. It builds up quite a pace, flitting between numerous locations – a rather heavy circular wooden set on wheels to one side of the stage revolves to open up a bar, a bedroom and an interrogation room – and jumping backwards and forwards in time to revisit scenes as catastrophic Cara reveals more about her motivation and actions. And while the action was spinning around on stage, my stomach was tying itself in knots, desperately hoping that this last turn would be the last and I could jump off the emotional rollercoaster and finally knit the plot back together.

While playwright Jonathan M Daley has created a piece that shows how a young performer unravels under the burden of making a permanent mark on society, the myriad of locations, the sheer number of characters and the long run time all deserve pruning to better showcase the good ideas that the work contains. The #TimesUp / #MeToo scene is topical but unnecessary while other aspects – like why the main set looks like a swimming pool – are skipped over too quickly or not reinforced enough. And starting a fictional work with "this is a true story" seems a little disingenuous.

The production’s innovation rival the quality of the acting. The use of LED strip lighting proved very effective in the low-ceilinged Accidental Theatre venue (though a simple inch-width of cardboard taped to the ceiling in front of the LEDs would shield the audience from the brilliance). The live chorus effect as villagers talk about Cara was novel and very effective, as was the level of control over the Skype conversations each time the video recorder under the TV screen was blattered.

While the plot was overly complicated, Julie Lamberton’s acting and singing, together with the moments of humour among the dire straits meant that Headrush, Ireland’s first production mostly swam along the surface rather than sinking. Better to have been too ambitious but mostly pulled it off than not to have tried to push the boundaries. So hats off to Headrush, Ireland: they are certainly a company to watch with their smorgasbord of production ideas, on stage talent and chutzpah. They plan to be back this summer with a new play We Like It Here directed by Emily Foran.

Sink or Swim was performed at Accidental Theatre between 22 and 24 March.

Photos from Headrush, Ireland.

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