The Bridewell Theatre is a disused Victorian swimming pool in the heart of the City of London. Amphibians, by the appropriately named Steve Waters, is a new play about two former British Olympic swimmers revisiting their past. The audience sits on the floor of the empty pool and the actors stand around the edge, surrounded by changing room lockers and an echoey dripping. So well matched are setting and subject, it is clear the play was developed with this forgotten space in mind.
Elsa (Louise Ford) and Max (Sam Heughan), once teenage lovers and now in their late 20s, meet again for the first time since their professional swimming days. Their exchange is, at first, tense and antagonistic; Elsa has moved on, got married and had a son; Max is still swimming, still stuck in the past.
Amphibians explores the strange situation of professional sportspeople – one that, as the title suggests, sets them apart from the rest of us. Olympians such as Elsa and Max are true “young professionals”: they are most focused on their careers in their teenage years, and all but retired by 25. So serious when other young people are having fun, they often find themselves adrift just when their contemporaries are starting to settle.
The play comprises present-day conversations and flashbacks to training sessions (a swimming pool full of excitable 14-year-olds, played by a chorus in Speedos). These scenes convey well the young athletes’ mixture of adolescent silliness and ambition untainted by disappointment. And Jan Knightley is funny and poignant as their sports-psychology-spouting coach (“There is only time and water”).
The journey of Elsa, Max and their coach from regional heats to Olympic glory is interspersed with choreographed pieces by the chorus. They are a looming, wordless presence around the central characters – with the same haunting effect as the underwater films projected on the back wall.
But though it is strong on atmosphere, Amphibians lacks a sustaining narrative. It makes its points about determination, fear and choice early on, but fails to develop them meaningfully. The subject is rich and, with London 2012 on the horizon, relevant – but the play feels both sketchy and overlong. I suspect that, like its young characters, it could have done with more time to mature.