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Shower curtain up! Tickets and towels, please – this is theatre for your bath

Arifa Akbar
·3-min read

Two new immersive audio shows involve running a warm bath but immersion isn’t instant in either. You are told to stand beside your tub for a long, shivering preamble, waiting for the instruction to – finally – step in.

For Swimming Home, listeners must download a sound-based interactive theatre app called Mercurious NET (National Ear Theatre), manoeuvre carefully once in the tub to make sure the phone doesn’t land in the water, and intermittently submerge your head while wearing headphones. For Thirst Trap, there are even more particularities: you receive a shoebox-sized delivery which contains all the accoutrements for the show, including a plastic-coated measuring tape so you can fill the bath to 25cm height and a thermometer to hit the right temperature. These preparations feel like an exacting, Heston Blumenthal style procedure to boil an egg. Filling up the bathtub, lighting a candle and lowering yourself in hardly needs the nine-step instruction leaflet provided.

Commissioned by Fuel and written by Rachael Young, Thirst Trap takes us into a relaxation ritual familiar to anyone who has experienced a spa treatment: we do a “body scan” and Alicia Jane Turner’s ambient soundtrack eases us into the water while Sharon D Clarke’s narration invites us to feel it lapping against our skins. But just as the piano music has brought on a meditative mindset, the story takes a left turn into an apocalyptic future of climate disaster. It is now 2079, and Boris Johnson’s toxic legacy has created a dystopia: the NHS is sold off, water is a scarcity, methane poisoning is on the rise and protective clothing is a necessity.

It feels increasingly and ironically inappropriate to be lying in a water-filled tub while listening to a drama about environmental recklessness. The recording speaks of floods, dinghies on the high street and homelessness, then takes another swerve at the end, tying the climate message back to wellness (“Sigh out all your rage”) but the two don’t quite gel and it ends up feeling more like a cold shower.

Swimming Home explores our relationship with water in more personal, impressionistic ways. Written and directed by Silvia Mercuriali, its narrative is based on interviews with swimmers, coaches and water-babies from the UK, some of whose voices are incorporated within the recording.

We are told to wear swimming costumes and goggles to our bathrooms, which feels faintly ridiculous, and our narrators (Mercuriali, Sam Booth and Simon Kane) urge us to think back to our first-ever swim. I am forced to revisit the dank, chlorine-filled pool of a school swimming lesson: it is a dismal memory that works against the bright-eyed wonder emanating from the recording, but it may be a more evocative exercise for those who have a genuine love of, and longing for, swimming in our current state of lockdown.

The recording contains a melange of facts about water, snippets of songs (“Row, row, row your boat”) as well as underwater recordings and testimonies about swimming experiences or watery fantasies (“I thought I was half-fish,” says one man).

All the while, we are told how to move in the water, when to duck down, to close our eyes, open them, and close them again. Even though the show seems intent on reinvigorating the senses and taking listeners to watery realms beyond the bathroom, it feels wearing. I am glad, when it is over, to be back on dry land again.