It is hard to identify the target audience for Sink or Swim. A late evening start suggests it is aimed at adults but the broad acting styles and tendency to opt for a quick laugh over sustained humour would be more appropriate for younger audiences. A strong sense of self-indulgence makes you wonder whether Spike Theatre had no wider audience in mind than pleasing themselves.

The central concept of the play is highly restrictive. Able Seaman Jim Black (Paul Duckworth), Swab Hand Bottle (Graham Geoffrey Hicks) and Officer Gideon Oliver (Shaun Mason) are forced into a tense alliance when they escape their sinking ship but are becalmed in a small boat. Options for taking the play forward include high adventure with attacks by sea monsters, the sailors exchanging tales of their lives and becoming increasingly fractious. Director Mark Smith (who devised the play with the performers) tries all of them but commits to none.

Smith initially develops a lively atmosphere with a sea battle recreated by shadow play but is unable to sustain the momentum or create a cohesive narrative. Excellent use is made of quick cuts and blackouts to show the passing of time. But Smith does not establish suspense or the claustrophobic atmosphere of potential violence arising from people forced into a tight space.  

Although Robert Farquhar scripts the play its origins as a collaboration between the cast and director are too apparent. It feels like a rough collection of contributions from the various parties topped and tailed by an opening and an ending. Well, a couple of endings actually. Typically of the production the company do not restrict themselves to one ending but instead offer a surprisingly stark rendition of Toby Park’s title song, a shock revelation and even an intervention by God.

The play has elements that work well such as a sleepwalking sequence in the small boat. But it has too many moments that feel like the company trying out an idea to see if it works. Officer Gideon Oliver is an effete Oxbridge graduate who uses the word ’Plebeian’ but this is a one-off rather than an effort to establish topicality.

Sink or Swim is too fragmented to be completely satisfying as a cohesive play and as a result leaves you feeling lost at sea.

- Dave Cunningham

(Reviewed at the Lowry, Salford)