Ah, the humble swimming pool. Forever in my mind associated with the verruca, chilly changing rooms, suspicious warm ‘blooms’ in the water, pervy old men, bored pool attendants, and water rat children hanging off the ropes.
Not so at the Lagan Valley LeisurePlex (or 'the Plex' as it is known to residents of Lisburn City). No, the Plex is an altogether different council-run amenity. Not so much a leisure centre as a statement of belief in the power of progress, of civilisation – from its grandiose columned entry to its (God protect us against such unnatural abominations) unisex changing rooms.
The competition and diving pools are state of the art, with submersible floors which can be raised and lowered to cater for all swimming abilities, overlooked by a 300 seater viewing gallery.
‘Such is the high standard of water facilities,’ the council’s website boasts. ‘The swimming pools have been granted National Centre of Excellence for Swimming Status, the only such centre in Northern Ireland.’
And I must admit, it does indeed have far less unidentified floating objects (corns, sticking plasters, chunks of hair) than other NI pools of my experience.
All this, and now a theatrical extravaganza in the form of the world premiere of Sinbad, the second aquatic production from Big Telly theatre company. The show follows on from the international success of Big Telly’s The Little Mermaid and if the expectant chattering in the gallery is anything to go by, it’s going to be a belter.
‘The kids are very excited,’ says one mum to another. ‘They’ve been talking about the show all day.’
The small blonde-haired boy next to me is so excited he wants to get into the pool. Parents look relieved that they’re not here to watch a swimming gala, with all the emotional anguish that entails.
The pool is set. Purple lights. Large, white canvas waves rise up in front of two long thin booms jutting out into the water. And like all good stories the show begins with ‘Once upon a time...’, and some gubbins about a big evil bird that once did terrible things, but is now guarded by mermaids under the sea, long forgotten by a complacent human race, until...
It’s all a bit vague but no matter for now it’s Sinbad’s wedding day. Cue some Eurovision style costumes and dancing. And, oh no, Sinbad’s well-fit bride has been carried off by the big evil bird – nuptials interruptus.
And so Sinbad’s swimathon begins. Fair play to Rodrigio Rodriguez, who for the best part of an hour cavorts around the pool. His stamina can’t be faulted, a gold medal in ‘pool theatrics’ in Beijing assured. On his adventures, he encounters a seemingly endless succession of sea creatures, including sharks, clownfish, dolphins and the monstrous head of a kraken.
I keep expecting a pool attendant to blow a whistle and tell the cast to behave themselves. But wait, here comes more – weird and wiggly, golden starfish things, pygmy headhunters, a whirlpool of evil mermaids, cutlass-wielding pirates. And Jonah thought he had problems. He only had to deal with a single whale.
Finally, Sinbad is reunited with his well-fit bride and their courtship takes an aquatic turn. As hands link and under water shimmying begins, my mind wanders to the pool regulations poster from my childhood. WILL PATRONS KINDLY REFRAIN FROM... SMOKING. BOMBING. PETTING. I wonder is there an updated version? WILL PATRONS KINDLY REFRAIN FROM... HAPPY SLAPPING. UNDERAGE SEX. CROSS BOWS.
But never mind such ruminations, what about the show?
Well, alas, the kids don’t appear gripped throughout. The oohs and aahs are lacking. The reason, I think, is that there’s just not enough narrative in Zoe Seaton and Paul Boyd’s non verbal production. Sinbad meets a succession of sea creatures. That’s it. Few moments of high drama are created.
Frustratingly, when such moments are created – the old man of the sea entering surreally in a bath tub, dry ice surging across the surface of the pool, for example – they are brilliant.
The show is also dependent on clear choreography and well-defined physicality from the actors/swimmers, which tonight aren’t quite there. Too much of the story gets lost in the splashing and slips past the attention of the young audience.
The soundtrack doesn’t help – pounding Eurodisco with the occasional foray into Persian Techno. Not so much incidental music as obliterating music. What with Sinbad in a gold headscarf, earring, wet white blouse and tight red pantaloons, at times it feels like a polysexual disco in Ibiza.
Credit though to the cast and the divers, who pull the various boats and islands in and out of position, for their endeavours. How do they create that illusion of depth? I wonder towards the end. When I do front crawl my fingertips scrape the bottom of the Plex's pool. Oh yes, those clever submersible floors.
Sinbad is heavy on splosh and short on spectacular. But pulling off this kind of production must be a nightmare. Designing and making the costumes alone would be a job worthy of Jacques Cousteau. It’s the show’s first outing and no doubt it will evolve over the coming run. Like Sinbad himself, I wouldn’t condemn it to a watery grave just yet.