Swim, Aunty, Swim! review – a funny, touching tale of female friendship

<span>Evelyn Duah, Karlina Grace-Paseda, Anni Domingo and Sam Baker-Jones in Swim, Aunty, Swim! </span><span>Photograph: Nicola Young</span>
Evelyn Duah, Karlina Grace-Paseda, Anni Domingo and Sam Baker-Jones in Swim, Aunty, Swim! Photograph: Nicola Young

Three women “in their prime”, a swimming pool, an instructor and a challenge that will lead them into deep, fast-flowing waters. Aunty Ama (Evelyn Duah) is determined to persuade her two friends, Aunty Blessing (Karlina Grace-Paseda) and Aunty Fatu (Anni Domingo), that they are capable of striking out from the shallow end of the local baths to take part in a wild-water relay race; young Danny (Sam Baker-Jones) is Ama’s unwitting accomplice (these are well-wrought performances).

The action of this funny, touching, enlightening new play by Siana Bangura, presented in co-production by the Belgrade theatre and the Tiata Fahodzi theatre company and seen pre-press night, is firmly set in Coventry, in the present day. Suspense builds gently. What are the obstacles holding each back from their goals? Will the characters reconcile their differences? The story is, in a sense, simple. The drama, though, is complex. It swirls across time and space, between physical and psychical realities, informed by the women’s experiences as migrants from west Africa (including of racial injustice), as mothers, and as Christians who also connect with ancestors’ beliefs in the water spirit Mami Wata.

We see the women in the pool, in their homes and at the church. For each, these various spaces carry resonances of something beyond that which is visible. This sense of multiplicity in particularity is brilliantly conveyed by Claire Winfield’s shape-shifting design and Ryan Joseph Stafford’s liquid lighting: the set is a swimming pool, its elements manipulated before our eyes to create each location. Duramaney Kamara’s afro-techno-jazz compositions go beyond providing aural cover for the scene changes; they express the spirit of the text, extending it throughout the auditorium.

Bangura’s writing offers a buoyant combination of naturalism and symbolism, social commentary and sharp characterisation, familiar from Chekhov and Ibsen – if not at their level (interesting that dramaturgy is by Chinonyerem Odimba). The actors are well-served by Gabrielle Nimo’s movement input, while the direction, by Madeleine Kludje, is strong, clear and sensitive.

Swim, Aunty, Swim! is at the Belgrade theatre, Coventry, until 1 June