Writer-performer Sarah Milton may not be reinventing the wheel with Tumble Tuck, but superbly assured, insightful and generous writing – combined with an equally skilful performance – ensure this attack on ‘winning’ is a hit.
Headlining a promising and pertinent season of all-female work at the King’s Head, Tumble Tuck uses competitive swimming as – yes – a springboard to sensitively explore pervading social pressure linked to body dysmorphia, the effects of trauma and society’s eternal fixation on ‘winning’.
Comparison with another recent water-themed, coming-of-age, one-woman monologue – Naomi Sheldon’s Good Girl – is perhaps inevitable. Writer-performer Sarah Milton holds her own though. Both voices are superbly assured, insightful, generous and genuine. Both also adeptly decide to never explicitly name what their protagonists are experiencing – leaving the darkness, sadness and occasional rage at their pieces cores with nowhere to go but seep through the cracks. Which is profound, and disconcerting, in equal measure.
Is it an issue that the similarities between pieces are relatively extensive? Yes and no. Swimming is either revealed to be a go-to (dare I say, easy?) metaphor for evocative exploration of mental health, or perhaps just a logical one. Playwrights admittedly have a lot of juxtapositions to work with: the freedom and weightlessness of the sensation paired with the ubiquitous risk of suffocation and drowning, the safety and simultaneous limitations of ‘treading water’, the attractive ability to shut everyone else out underwater but also the risks of feeling entirely alone, etc, etc. More pragmatically, swimming also seems a convenient theatrical conceit (particularly for feminist work, perhaps): a reason for ‘normal’, semi-naked bodies to be laid out onstage to either face the brunt of ‘scrutiny’ under harsh light, and/or (hopefully) be celebrated. Plus ample excuses for abstract movement sequences in blue light.
Whilst Sheldon’s ‘GG’ stages a sit-down underwater protest during her under-11’s relay, Milton’s ‘Daisy’ takes up swimming as a form of therapy (following ex-boyfriend-induced trauma). Both protagonists turn what could be all-consuming, suffocating and laden with societal expectation into something they can control: GG in her protest, and Daisy in her refusal to learn a ‘superior’ front crawl technique to the one she’s comfortable with.
This latter character decision relates to perhaps Tumble Tuck‘s most original insight. Form and direction-wise, the piece is fairly well-trodden territory for effective one-handers: fluid segueing to the next character being punctuated with a different accent and stock physicality (almost a gestus), a movement section that the character frequently returns to, even the intake of breath just in time with the final blackout. There’s nothing wrong with it as such, but you do feel you’ve seen it before.
But Milton’s underlying assertion that the sacrifices we must make to win aren’t always worth it, seems exciting. I’d suggest it’s not a message many other writers are paying adequate attention to, but a piece which makes you realise they should. The (palpably likeable) generosity and truth that Milton lends both her writing and performance- evident in that assertion, for example – is where Tumble Tuck shines brightest. It’s genuinely funny, quietly poignant and ultimately affirming (for men and women alike) writing, elevated further by a passionate, energetic and precise central performance. Go see.