The Swimming Club | Melbourne Theatre CompanyPhotos - Jeff Busby

A new play by Hannie Rayson is always an exciting event, with high expectations of this Melbourne playwright, who has given us such gems as Hotel Sorrento (1990), Life After George (2000) and Inheritance (2003). Her ideas are wide-ranging, based within the Australian experience, and thoroughly researched. Her dialogue-driven dramas attempt to understand the world we live in.

The Swimming Club does not live up to expectations. It relies less on a well-researched idea and, although rich in dialogue, is not a finely scripted piece. It is perhaps closest to Hotel Sorrento in its exploration of character, but does not have the same emotional power. And rather than research a contemporary issue in the broader sphere, Rayson stays close to her own experience, a recent one, that of a middle-aged woman returning to Greece after a gap of thirty years (twenty-four in her own case).

This is an idea that promises rich pickings. What happens as we age? What have we lost? What have we gained? How do we view our past selves? Can we return to the past? If we do, what happens?

All these questions are touched on in The Swimming Club, but there are few insights that surface from the dramatic events or dialogue. Much happens: marriage breakdown, romantic affairs, overdose, business takeover. Too much in fact. The play resolves through plot rather than through character development. We are left none the wiser.

The Swimming Club, which is directed by Kate Cherry, Artistic Director of Black Swan Theatre, was developed in workshops at Black Swan and in rehearsal at MTC. This may be the reason why the script does not have a satisfying shape and the writer’s imagination does not take us into new spaces. The characters are at pains to explain themselves directly to the audience and do a bit of philosophising as they go. Surely this came out of the workshop process and these soliloquies could have been absorbed into the fabric of the play.

As it has evolved, this is a play that relies largely on the performances for its impact. Several actors stand out for their interpretation, which requires a change of pace and physical agility as the characters age by thirty years. John Waters is relaxed, funny and vulnerable as the jilted husband, approaching the role with a playfulness that brings out Rayson’s wonderful touches of humour. Angela Punch McGregor, who plays opposite Waters as his aggrieved wife, is delightfully self-righteous but confused. Newcomer Megan Holloway milks every theatrical opportunity to create a convincing and appealing Goth daughter. Caroline Gillmer puts in a spirited performance as Bird, and Tina Bursill an intelligent and nuanced portrayal of the Canadian woman, Laura.

The simple set by Christina Smith, depicting the halcyon beach of a Greek island, complete with water and sand, is magnificent, and the lighting by Matt Scott, evoking the sparkling days and rosy sunsets, superb. The swimming sequences are original and add a dream-like quality. Perhaps more could have been made of this fantasy setting to set the play free from its roots in traditional drawing room drama. Perhaps the play, if not entirely satisfying, marks a transition for one of our finest playwrights to a new phase in her dramatic writing.

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
The Swimming Club
by Hannie Rayson

Directed by Kate Cherry

Venue: Sumner Theatre, Southbank, Melbourne
Dates: 5 February to 14 March 2010
Duration: 2 hrs 40 mins
Tickets: $30 - $83.15
Bookings: MTC 03 8688 0800 |

A co-production with Black Swan State Theatre Company

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