Dry Land is about an American high school swim team. Or rather, it is about adolescence, and trauma, and the way those two things are so often entwined as to almost make them synonymous. The action focuses largely on the after-practice conversations of two girls, Amy (Milly Thomas), who we soon discover is pregnant, and Ester (Aisha Fabienne Ross), the obsessive star swimmer. Although able support is provided by best-friend Reba (the buoyant Charlotte Hamblin) and college-boy Victor (Dan Cohen, whose hasty nervousness meshes wonderfully with the fidgety Ester), they largely carry the show – and do so incredibly well.
We are thrust immediately into the desperate situation, into the intimacy of their locker room conversations and frank confessions – frank being the best descriptor of the whole play. Characters reveal their secrets, oddities and desires in sharp, back-and-forth statements of self, a volleying need to define and divulge as things begin to hit crunch point. It’s an oddly voyeuristic bubble, a world in which we are drawn into Amy’s increasingly frantic attempts to abort the child, and Ester’s vulnerability is exposed more and more – and we can do absolutely nothing. Ross is stunning, a clear oddball from the moment she walks onto stage without ever verging into cliché, her understated emotion a wonderful foil to the acerbic Amy. Thomas manages to make Amy – who is strident, and cruel in her anger – wholly sympathetic, and wholly real.
Despite the undercurrent of darkness – which comes to the fore in a graphic climactic scene that is almost viscerally uncomfortable to watch – there are moments of humour. This can be over-reliant on the shock factor, but it is used in the same way the girls themselves use it: it is a coping method, a way of being funny, of being something other than stuck in a situation that can only end in pain, regardless of the outcome. Dry Land is also a genuinely moving portrait of female friendship – the three girls are as thoughtlessly tactile with each other as if they had been best friends forever, which can be difficult to portray realistically onstage, but is done to great effect here.
Effects are minimal – there is the near-constant flicker of pool light in the background, bursts of female-led indie-pop between scenes, and the occasional babble of voices, splashes and half-screams as tension mounts within the locker room. It exacerbates the feeling of claustrophobia – even when Ester takes a trip to a local college, the action merely moves stage right – we never fully escape the locker room and the events that unfold within it. Other than the janitor, we never see a proper adult, emphasising the sense of adolescent isolation.
As the play picks up the pieces of the climactic scene, the janitor (Mark Keegan) cleans up the locker room. It feels impersonal, the whole room on edge for silent minutes – one audience member said “no” out loud as they watched, because the process seemed so utterly wrong. Afterwards, after it all, there is a moment where it clicks, where Amy and Ester laugh and our hearts lift, a fleeting testimonial to the resilience of teenage girls. But, inevitably, it fractures, the bubble of adolescence abruptly popped with the entrance of college places and the end of high school – and it could feel like any other senior year movie, but it doesn’t, it feels like splitting.