Two women alone. Trapped. Powerless to escape their surroundings, forced to trust in one another and helpless to comprehend why they are there. The Vaults’ latest production AIRSWIMMING explores the effects of incarceration and the dark, sadistic side of the early twentieth century in Britain.

Charlotte Jones’s powerful writing follows the wasted lives of ‘Dora’/‘Dorph’ (Emma Playfair) and ‘Persephone’/‘Porph’ (Lily Newbury-Freeman) in an asylum for the criminally insane, unwed mothers, moral imbeciles and the inverted.

Entering the space was an experience in itself and The Vaults provided an eerie and echoey setting for the stringent hospital sheets that hung around the edging of the stage, and the singular, rotted bath tub that stood in the centre of the auditorium. We then meet ’Dora’, who has been at the establishment since 1922 for smoking cigars and wanting to wear men’s clothing, is then joined by upperclass daddy’s girl and unwed mother ‘Persephone’ in 1924 to assist in polishing duty. Without another soul to rely upon in the hell that they have been placed in, the pair become the firmest of companions. Over a span of fifty years we see the unlikely couple throughout their arbitrary existence, enduring devastating lows, as they become one another’s only comfort in a world that wished to lock them away and never see them again.

The result is a beautifully simple, non linear, two hander that is both tragic and funny. It put me in mind of ‘The Magdalene Sisters’, and the fact that these horrific asylums were present until the mid seventies makes one sick to their stomach. Both actresses are outstanding, conveying isolation and fear with dexterity and grace. Playfairs’ ‘Dorph’ is both unyielding and broken providing an excellent juxtaposition to Newbury-Freemans’ fragile and naive, Doris Day obsessed ‘Porph’. Both demonstrated excellent craft and a refreshing stage presence that left a tear in my eye.

Although the piece is very bleak it was inconceivably funny, with moments of utter hilarity blending together this story of crushing loneliness and love. The two women are not victims at all but strong individuals who are simply at the mercy of an extremely cruel world’s pressing judgement. The action did slow in patches and, much like the characters, I found myself awaiting an ultimatum that never came. Although this was the aim, I did find my eyes getting heavy at points regardless of the intention.

It’s a weighty night of entertainment and it’s certainly not easy going at just under two hours long and void of an interval. However given the nature of the subject matter and the fact that it’s based on true events, the two hours are certainly not wasted. For a well rounded and eerie experience as well as an evening of true skill and artistry venture to The Vaults!

Reviewed by Jimmy Richards
Photo: Ed Miller

AIRSWIMMING plays at The Vaults until 30 October 2016