Start Swimming

Young versus old, small versus big, it can often feel as though the young are being crushed. Whether it’s votes not being counted, education being undervalued and overpriced or not being able to afford a home that would have been expected in years gone by, The Young Vic’s new play at Summerhall, ‘Start Swimming’, tunes into a typical young person’s cloudy confusion of everyday and existential questions.

As you would expect, the piece is performed by a group of committed, impressive young actors, each one bringing a new energy and drive to a perfect ensemble. The sudden materialisation of the cast in a pitch-black moment drew audience gasps from the outset, coming as an impressive shock and setting the bar high for an hour of phenomenal physical and vocal ensemble work.

The ambiguous plot sees eleven millennials stranded on boxes and receiving silent instructions and punishments from an unknown monstrosity behind the audience. They are trying in vain to get across the stage and while their only instruction is to start swimming, the water is deadly. The impressive tech creates a terrifying predator, ensuring that the trembling cast are fully plausible in their fear. At times the creature felt like the very audience I was sitting in, as creepy noises filled the theatre and lights flickered on and off with a chilling success.

The group have been left with nothing except fear, crouching on their cramped boxes, unable to speak for the first few moments. The vowels that are eventually strung into words and then sentences are painfully extracted amidst electric torture from the monster. The first sentence uttered, ‘What are you doing here?’ becomes a running theme of existentialism, both for the cast and the undoubtedly the audience.

The most touching aspect of this piece was the ensemble work, as the horror of the monster both brought the cast together and ostracised them. This evokes the hopelessness of youthful loneliness and emptiness but also the bond of youth, and was vague enough to strike a different cord in everyone.

Unfortunately strange moments in the ambiguous plot occasionally let the cast down. A well-delivered monologue on the perils of gentrification, with references to avocados, brunch and babies changing the world, was incongruous in the play, although it did add to a confused atmosphere. The final emphasis parallels all class inequalities in the UK to medieval lawns stolen off the proletariat. Aside from lending itself to a fun rhyming chant, the moment felt clumsy in comparison to the play’s overriding message, which was far better encapsulated by the song answering the opening question with the defiant response, ‘I’m not going anywhere’.

Overall, the collective talent of the young cast makes this a confusing show well worth seeing, raising tricky questions and leaving the audience fairly confident in this selection of bold young people.

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Jane Prinsley

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