Charlotte Jones’ debut play, Airswimming, is a poignant, one-act portrayal of the lives of two women in St Dymphna’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane. First performed in 1997, yet set between the 1920s and 1970s, keeping this play current was arguably the greatest challenge for director Stephanie Goodfellow. This is a feat in which she succeeds, by tapping into a wide variety of emotions and viewpoints over the course of fifty years, treading the line between reality and fantasy with decorum and grace.

A vibrant and fast-paced piece of theatre which teaches us the power of friendship and hope

The play centres around the lives of two women, Persephone and Dora, as they come to terms with their imprisonment in a mental asylum by seeking solace in each other. They spend an hour per day polishing the bath and stairs and in this hour they are able to both confide in and comfort each other, as we gradually learn the reasons behind their imprisonment. They can also use this time to escape from their mundane lives through a world of imagination, calling themselves Porph and Dorph respectively and acting out scenes as a variety of characters, such as Doris Day and army sergeants.

A key aspect of this performance to note was the way in which Tanya Chainey (Dora/Dorph) and Alison Nicol (Persephone/Porph) brought their characters to life, something which both actors can be proud of. Their constant presence onstage also added to the sense of stagnancy in their lives, as they gradually lose track of days and slip further and further into their fantasy world. Chainey’s portrayal of Dora, from the onset, was of a strong, independent, confident woman who supported Persephone and helped her grow accustomed to her new surroundings. Nicol can also be applauded for her ability to portray Persephone as a young, naïve woman, and we watched her grow and begin to support Dora in their isolation.

From a technical perspective, more could have been done with regard to lighting and sound to differentiate the real from the imaginary, and it was here that I felt the calibre of the performance dropped slightly. The actors utilised the small space as well as they could and the set, though basic, served its purpose. The decision of director Goodfellow to present her actors and to have them perpetually onstage, changing their costumes and finding their props in plain view of the audience, was a strong one. This created an extremely natural and symbiotic relationship between Persephone and Dora, which we could see developing over their 50 years in each others company.

This is an admirable piece of theatre, which does not shy away from mental health issues. I found myself relating the issues faced by Dora and Persephone to problems which we face in contemporary society today. Airswimming, both hilarious and devastating, is a vibrant and fast-paced piece of theatre which teaches us the power of friendship and hope, as even if you are trapped, you can find a way to escape. You can swim through the air. 

Reviews by Angela O'Callaghan

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The Blurb

'A feelgood comedy set in the most unlikely of places' (Guardian). Critically acclaimed Weird Sisters Theatre Company present this uplifting story about friendship, fantasy and freedom. In 1924: Persephone Baker is planning her coming-out ball at the Dorchester when she finds herself abandoned at St Dymphna’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane, with only 'unhinged cigar smoking monomaniac transsexual' Dora Kitson to keep her company. Forgotten for 50 years, they create a surreal fantasy life involving Doris Day and a host of epaulette-wearing heroines to escape the drudgery and isolation of their existence.