I’m sure that growing up never used to be as fraught with the sorts of problems seemingly facing today’s teens, or at least those going through puberty across the pond.
Everything is far worse in America, or so they’d have us believe. Ruby Rae Spiegel’s coming of age drama, Dry Land, which is playing at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre, is disturbing, surprising and shocking but, I’d like to think, written with a great deal of dramatic licence.
It is also unrealistic. Either Spiegel plucked the scenario out of thin air or she was determined not to let her research get in the way of a good story.
As the mother of two former county swimmers I can say, with a certain amount of confidence, that Dry Land’s key character, the emaciated-looking Ester, who is supposed to be her school’s swimming club star, is so thin and lacking in any muscle, that she wouldn’t have the strength for a width of doggy paddle much less the thousands of metres in training sessions, especially in her specialities of ‘fly and front crawl.
But, as I said, dramatic licence. Spiegel would have been better off making them gymnasts.
Dry Land is set in the pool locker room and, over the course of 90 minutes, we hear about Ester’s attempted suicide, her eating disorder, her isolation and loneliness and her lack of social skills.
Bizarrely, she is desperate to be friends with the popular Amy (god knows why because she’s an absolute bitch) and when we meet the pair Amy is making Ester punch her (very convincingly) in the stomach.
It soon becomes apparent that the icy Amy is up the duff. Her swagger and bravado, her “enthusiasm” (real, exaggerated or completely imaginary) with boys, and her determination to appear grown up – drinking, partying hard and taking drugs – has resulted in the inevitable.
Now, if Dry Land was set in London, the plot would be a non-starter. Amy would go to her local drop-in medical centre and her predicament would be promptly dealt with. Story over.
I found it hard to warm to this drama, which doesn’t travel well. This is a very American story or am I being naive? It didn’t engage me enough to care about what happens even though it was well acted.
We get to what, I’m assuming, is piece’s controversial climax but Jermyn Street’s small performance space, and Hannah Hauer-King’s direction, meant that it was missed by about 90 per cent of the audience who couldn’t see over the heads of those in front to what was happening on the floor. Something occurred but I don’t know what.
Throughout Dry Land Ester (Aisha Fabienne Ross) struggles to fit in and be “one of the girls” while hoping to fulfil her ambitions of winning a swimming scholarship to a top Florida university.
Amy (Milly Thomas) postures, glowers, snarls and belittles the swim star; and makes several attempts to bring on a miscarriage. She’s misunderstood (natch), hurting and perhaps not as grown-up as she’d like us to think.
There’s one scene, where Ester goes to try out at the uni and meets another loner. I’d like to have seen more of Dan Cohen’s engaging Victor because his halting, probing and, ultimately winning conversation with the gauche visitor lifted the production for a moment.
Thomas had the juiciest part as tough girl Amy, and succeeded in creating a thoroughly angry and unlikable girl who hit out at anyone who tried to get emotionally close. Ross’s nicely nuanced turn encapsulated the vulnerability of Ester.
But ultimately Dry Land remains bleak, a story about messed up Florida teens struggling to make it through school without killing themselves or others.
At Jermyn Street until this Saturday.
Dry Land is a bleak look at a pair of emotionally damaged Florida teens trying their best to get through puberty in one piece.