DRY LAND, Jermyn Street Theatre - Review

"Punch me."

So begins Ruby Rae Spiegel's play Dry Land, about a female school swimming team in Florida. Plays about teenage girls are generally not common currency. Sure, there are innumerable coming of age movies that rehash the stereotypes of 'cool girls' and outsiders, but by the end of such films you're sure everything works out in the end. Not so in Dry Land.

This production of Spiegel's play which is directed by Hannah Hauer-King, marks its UK premiere at Jermyn Street Theatre – a suitably intimate venue for a tale about facing up to life's hard choices.

Set in the locker room, Dry Land begins with Amy (Milly Thomas) repeatedly asking Ester (Aisha Fabienne Ross) to punch her in the stomach. It sounds like the typical 'macho' banter of teenage boys or a line from Fight Club, but there is in fact a purpose to it – to help Amy have a miscarriage.

Throughout the play the discussions and various attempts to assist in their venture are carried out in a matter-of-fact fashion, but like most things, the more you think you know, the more you don't. Amy and Ester aren't close friends. In fact that's the reason why Ester's asked in the first place is because it's too awkward for Amy to ask her close friend Reba (Charlotte Hamblin) to carry out this task.

The play steers away from making judgment calls about Amy's choice. Instead it chooses to show why an intelligent adolescent would resort to such extreme tactics to terminate her pregnancy. Outwardly, Amy appears to be an alpha female who everyone listens to, who knows her own mind and does what she wants – not a million miles away from 'Hebe' who Thomas played in A First World Problem. To cement her status as a 'developed young woman', Amy wants the wider world to think of her as a sexually active girl, even though in some quarters by her own admission, this counts as 'slutty' behaviour. However, we later find she does care about others' opinion of her, taking to heart Reba's disparaging comments about her creative writing.

In contrast, even though she's the star of the swimming team, Ester herself is modest to a fault. It's only after series of probing questions from Amy that we learn that Ester once had an 'intense' relationship with a coach, that she isn't a virgin and at one time emotionally hit rock bottom... Later, Ester's visit to student Victor (Dan Cohen) at another campus reveals a hitherto unseen side of Amy... and also of Ester.

Spiegel has a natural ear for dialogue, using it in a humorous fashion to simultaneously comment on Amy's peers' sexual proclivities and eating disorders:
AMY: Once I walked in on two of them giving head to bananas. I was so surprised to see them with food.
Or using popular culture in conversation to gauge teenagers' sense of self-worth:
REBA: I’m such a Hermione.
AMY: You’re a Hufflepuff.
REBA: Don’t even say that! I know it’s a joke, but like don’t even say that.

While the play's dialogue is candid throughout, nothing will prepare you from the last act. Upon watching the play, it comes as no surprise that Sarah Kane's writing was an influence on Spiegel's work. Dry Land isn't unremittingly bleak, it certainly isn't afraid to stare into the abyss and face the most isolating of experiences.

Thomas was exceptional in last year's A First World Problem, but in Dry Land she's raised her performance to another level. Ross' in comparison may have been a quieter, less ostentatious, but she's the true calm centre of the play, the centre of gravity that anchors everything. Last, but not least, Hamblin's performance as Reba brought some much-needed levity between scenes. While Reba could be classified as a minor role, the play would've been poorer without Hamblin's presence.

Women's relationship with their own bodies will always be relevant, as will their right to determine what's best for them. Spiegel in her inaugural full-length play has shown how the seeds of this are sown in our formative years, back when the sense of self isn't fully formed and relationships take on an all-or-nothing quality. There are no absolutes, only questions and the loyalty of one's friends to fall back on. Life as an adult is hard enough, but Dry Land is a reminder that the same issues still exist in our teen years, only we have even less control of our circumstances then. A scary place to be.

© Michael Davis 2015

Dry Land runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 21st November 2015. http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/dry-land/

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