TANK at the Wardrobe, Bristol

In the early 60s, on the Caribbean Virgin Islands, a man called John Lilly began doing research on communication between humans and dolphins. His work attracted the attention of Margaret Lovatt, who was living on the island at the time. She soon became involved and eventually agreed to take part in an experiment in which she would live with a dolphin called Peter for some 10 weeks, and attempt to teach him English. A human-dolphin, partially flooded space was created at the lab to enable Margaret and Peter to interact and live together. This bizarre, true story is the subject of Breach Theatre’s Fringe First Award-winning production ‘Tank’, which is showing at the Wardrobe Theatre this weekend.

The four actors explain the build-up to the story: The 1960s was the era of the Space-Race and the experiments attracted NASA funding; if we can communicate with dolphins… maybe we can communicate with aliens? They read from transcripts of tapes made of the experiments and play out the unfolding drama with quirky actions and humorous asides. Gradually we are drawn into the intimate world that develops between Margaret and Peter.

Voice-altering software gives us the dolphin sounds from the actors, who lend the animals some credible human aspects. Margaret (Sophie Steer) has an American accent and a swim-suit, video plays behind the stage to enhance the watery scenario. We follow the increasingly close relationship that grows between the two mammals; woman and cetacean.’Heeelllooo Peter’; Margaret tries to enunciate clearly for the dolphin ‘Baaalll… fetch the baaalll’. Joe Boylan is charming and slightly unnerving as Peter the dolphin, who doesn’t seem to be too bothered about the lessons unless there is fish involved. Is the dolphin really learning English? And what are the humans learning about the dolphins? This story and its implications are neatly handled in this production, which also features Ellice Stevens and Craig Hamilton.

Later in the experiment we watch as frustration creeps in, tensions rise and surprising feelings emerge. Clever lighting and incidental music enhance the performance, even if the background visuals are slightly incongruous at times. The actors do well and there is astute dialogue and imaginative staging; with shrewd direction by co-directors Billy Barrett and Ellice Stevens. There is emotion, mystery and humour in the performance. I found myself smiling and grimacing in equal measure.

We see a story develop about the relationship between humans and highly intelligent animals, the connections that arise between them and the moral implications of confinement and contact… both for human and animal. This play is also about the American psyche and the human desire for control; and it raises questions about how we treat and care for animals in captivity. Breach theatre are to be congratulated for making an entertaining and engaging piece of theatre from what might be an undistinguished subject matter.    ★★★☆☆    Adrian Mantle  28th   April 2017