5:00am Friday 9th May 2014
By Dominic Smith
Any keen swimmers who’ve ever struggled to master the butterfly might see the majestic stroke quite differently after the fantastical journey imagined in this Brighton Fringe Emerging Talent- nominated show.
It’s a slice of historical fiction presented by Alice Mary Cooper, who invites the audience to the wake of self-effacing swimming star Elizabeth, who has left her native Australia and moved to the UK.
That move is one of a few similarities between Cooper and her heroine. They both love swimming and each developed their own form of butterfly.
Writer, producer and performer Cooper reveals she created her own brand when she was a child by combining breaststroke kicks with butterfly arms because her legs were not strong enough at the time.
She excelled for a while but when her coach said it was time to change to the proper stroke she quit competition.
In Waves, Cooper plays a friend of swimming star Elizabeth, who takes the audience to a small room to tell them a story about this pioneering swimmer, who invented the butterfly. It moves between fact and fiction and is not a documentary.
“It’s a tragedy that sparks her to swim,” explains Cooper.
“She lives on Gabo Island, off the coast of Victoria, which is known for its pink granite lighthouse, which is the second oldest in Australia.
“Now the island is a national park, but before it was occupied by sailors. The waters are treacherous and she grew up on the island because her dad was a mason from Italy brought over to restore the lighthouse.
“She was taught to swim and to not fear the ocean.”
It is depression-era Australia and money is tight. Elizabeth’s life changes when her cricket-loving brother jumps in the sea to get a cricket ball he’s spotted. Disaster follows.
“She runs down and tries to save him but he drowns. She manages to get back to shore, but after that she hates the sea.
She screams at it every day for months and months. One day, she looks at the sea and it is calm and hot, she wants to put her feet in, but she’s made a vow never to swim after her brother was taken by the vicious sea.
“But she begins to talk to the sea, to make it into a person. That conversation goes on for months and she learns that maybe the sea is not this horrible monster that has taken her brother.
“Her brother was too small and got lost in the sea so she changes her idea of what it is.
“She begins to learn how to swim from sea life.”
The piece grew from a short story Cooper wrote for a friend’s literary magazine, Jean Marie, which is based in Brittany.
Later she began to create a story for a life based on the original tale and this was then chosen for an Ideas Tap grant to perform at a Storytelling Festival.
Over the past year, since performing Waves at Edinburgh Festival in 2013, she’s honed the production with the help of industry experts.
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Broadway Baby Rating:
It is a remarkable opening. Initially there is a sense of confusion - Should we know Liz? - my brain doesn’t instantly tap into Cooper’s technique. But once you realise what is happening and embrace this fictionalised inclusion, a feeling roots you there in Cooper’s presence, denying any distraction from whatever else you might have been thinking about that morning. Cooper is convincing and charming enough to persuade even the most resistant audience member into becoming part of her tale.
However, once the story begins this feeling becomes lost. At least, I yearned for it to return. Cooper’s story is magical: the re-imagined tale of the invention of butterfly stroke, created by a woman whose relationship with water revolves around a tragedy experienced at the shore of her island home. It is told beautifully; Cooper is a performer and storyteller dedicated to instilling a sense of wonder in her audience. But I do wish more was made of our reasons for being there. I wanted to know how I knew Liz, why I needed to be there to hear about her life.
Perhaps this is a selfish request from such a sensitive and well-crafted piece. Such interesting experiences should be acknowledged and cultivated. As Cooper says good-bye and invites us to return to our normal lives - fictional and real - there is a sense that something very special has taken place, but also that this something doesn’t quite realise the emotional power that it contains. It’s not a waste, more an exciting glimpse of something truly beautiful just out of reach.
Alice Mary Cooper delivered one of the wackiest shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year: the acclaimed When Alice (Cooper) Met (Prince) Harry. So her follow-up is equally surprising, it’s an understated, straight storytelling piece about the inventor of swimming’s butterfly stroke.
We are all fellow mourners at the wake of an inspirational woman, Elizabeth. As her former careworker, Alice knew her better than many. And, over a cup of tea, she makes the most of her captive audience by telling us a few tales about how Elizabeth became a world-champion swimmer.
The set-up is promising and engaging, although Cooper’s exuberant performing style does make you question whether a careworker would really be so animated and overexcited at a former patient’s funeral. Nevertheless, the story, “both fairy tale and superhero journey”, is an enchanting one. Although pretty much entirely made-up, it is always utterly believable.
Tucked away in a little 15-seat room on the Free Fringe, you can’t help feeling like Cooper should be performing to much bigger crowds. The young theatremaker has officially proven that there is much more to her than the quirkiness she displayed last year. Waves demonstrates she is just as good at writing as she is at charming an audience.
Thanks to my lovely audience who braved 4 flights of stairs and a hot little room to the opening of #waves @edfringe @freefringefest- if that one lonely chair had not been there we would have made a sell out! Go team audience.