Review: Lifeguard, National Theatre of Scotland (for Daily Telegraph)

Lifeguard, Govanhill Baths, Glasgow

Adrian Howells’ Lifeguard is simply too loose in its structure to be a truly convincing work of art, writes Mark Brown.

One could be forgiven for thinking that water is something of an obsession for Adrian Howells. One of the performance artist’s best known works is entitled Foot Washing for the Sole. Now, in a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and Glasgow arts venue The Arches, he is presenting Lifeguard, a show which is performed in and around the training pool of the iconic (and, since 2001, controversially closed) Govanhill Baths in Glasgow.

Howells does not engage himself directly in the ongoing debate over Glasgow City Council’s decision to close the baths after 84 years; a decision which, famously, led to a vociferous protest campaign by local residents, and to the establishment of the Govanhill Baths Community Trust (which is an associate producer of the show). However, one can certainly infer a sympathy with the campaign from his reflections upon the seminal significance of water and swimming in the human memory.

Inferring and piecing together is the lot of the audience member throughout this gentle but somewhat insubstantial show.

During the piece’s brief hour, Howells (The Lifeguard) interacts with the remarkable dancer Ira Mandela Siobhan (The Swimmer), whose capacities for grace and energy in the water are as impressive as his abilities on stage (as demonstrated in the work of DV8 Physical Theatre, among others). The piece also offers us tremendous projected images; showing, at the outset, a series of life-sized swimmers making their ways across the pool and, later, an inch-perfect team of synchronised swimmers.

Sadly, little else in this conceptual show is properly synchronised. A memory (real or imagined) of being forced, as a child, by his father to retrieve a 50 pence piece from the deep end of a swimming pool sits alongside cameos by swimmers old and young; a bleak consideration of drowning; the release of clockwork bath toys; and moments which alight (too briefly) upon the social, erotic and spiritual (especially baptismal) implications of public baths.

Towards the end, Howells invites his audience to dangle their feet in the water with him and, ultimately, to join him in the pool, where play and conversation are encouraged. It makes, without doubt, a positive case for the reopening of Govanhill Baths, but Lifeguard is simply too loose in its structure to be a truly convincing work of art.

Until Oct 27. Details: www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on October 11, 2012

© Mark Brown

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