Swim, Aunty, Swim! By Siana Bangura – review:

“I loved 'Swim, Aunty Swim!' Not just for the brilliant acting and writing, but also for its visual appeal”.
Belgrade Theatre
Review by: Christina Nicole
afridiziak ratings
Published: Friday 07 June 2024, 1:00pm

Karlina Grace-Paseda, Evelyn Duah, Anni Domingo & Sam Baker-Jones. Photo by Nicola Young Photography
Karlina Grace-Paseda, Evelyn Duah, Anni Domingo & Sam Baker-Jones. Photo by Nicola Young Photography

Every time I watch a play, I’m always on the lookout for something new. Whether it’s a unique set design, unseen characters, or a compelling story, ‘Swim, Aunty, Swim!’ delivered exactly that and more.

Written by Siana Bangura and directed by Madeleine Kludje, ‘Swim, Aunty, Swim!’ tells the story of three mature West African women who, despite their personal challenges, find themselves in the water.

The trio form a friendship in church, but it blossoms when water is added to it. Aunty Ama (Evelyn Duah) encourages Aunty Fatu (Anni Domingo) and Aunty Blessing (Karlina Grace-Paseda) to take swimming lessons at a local pool. Initially hesitant, both Aunty Fatu and Aunty Blessing gradually push themselves to conquer their fears of the water.

As they learn from their instructor Danny (Sam Baker-Jones), the three women also share insights into West African culture with him and a lovely friendship between them all is formed.

The plot takes a twist when Aunty Ama signs them up for an open water race without consulting her friends first. Tensions rise, but Aunty Ama seeks redemption by inviting herself over to Aunty Fatu’s house after church, insisting Aunty Blessing joins. With the two ladies now in her home, Aunty Fatu, broken by grief, shares her heartbreaking story of how she lost her son to police brutality and how no one has been charged for his murder.

With honest conversations now had and friendships restored, the three aunties decide to give open sea swimming a go, especially as it is for a good cause (to raise money for victims of police brutality). But while amidst the sea, voices are heard, and they see flashes of life before their eyes; perhaps Mami Wata has come to pay them a visit?

Having never been to the Belgrade or ventured outside London to watch a play, I was excited to see what the theatre had to offer and how the audience would react to such a culturally rich performance. I was pleasantly surprised by the inviting atmosphere of the Belgrade Theatre and the diversity of the audience. People had travelled from far and wide to see this special play, creating a sense of community in the auditorium rather than a room of strangers. By the end of the post-show Q&A, everyone had shared personal stories, and the buzz in the theatre was electric. Not only did they love the play, but everyone seemed touched and inspired. It was truly a beautiful experience to witness.

Swim’ touched on many important topics that resonated with me. I loved seeing friendships onstage, especially among older black women. We often see friendships among teens or young women, but rarely among mature West African women. During the Q&A, writer Siana Bangura shared that the aunties are inspired by her own mother, who has been her lifelong best friend and support system.

She wanted to give a voice to women who are often overlooked on both stage and screen. ‘Swim’ really got me thinking about age in general. I fear growing old, mainly because of the health challenges that come with aging. However, ‘Swim’ taught me that life is fleeting and it’s never too late to try something new. It also reminded me that growing old is a privilege that should be embraced and enjoyed.

‘Swim’ also touches on grief, with Aunty Blessing losing her husband, Danny losing his mum, and most recently, Aunty Fatu losing her son. Though the time scale of loss varies, it’s a part of their characters, and each cope with it differently. For Aunty Fatu, her loss is raw, and we witness her pain engulfing her throughout the play.

For me, the moment Aunty Fatu shares her story with the other aunties, the play truly comes alive. With tears streaming from audience members on both sides of me, I realise how relatable Aunty Fatu’s story is and how loss can affect us all. This scene is also a testament to the brilliant acting, direction, and writing, as it feels incredibly real and believable.

I absolutely loved ‘Swim, Aunty Swim!’ Not just for the brilliant acting and writing, but also for its visual appeal. Designed by Claire Winfield, the set was ingeniously crafted, resembling a shell of a swimming pool with versatile compartments that transformed seamlessly into a church, changing room, cemetery, house, and open sea. With lighting designed by Ryan Joseph Stafford to simulate water, I felt immersed in the swimming pool, watching three ladies take a swimming class. I also loved the costume design by Naomi Thompson, especially the swimming hats that resembled traditional headwear. The ladies looked absolutely fabulous!

All four actors were fantastic, and each held their own. They were all vulnerable, funny, and believable. I was fully invested in them all and loved watching their individual personalities interact with one another. They really brought the play to life in a special way.

‘Swim, Aunty, Swim!’ is a great play with so much to unpack. It was great to see a table in the main foyer with poems to offer support after the show, along with a pack containing information about local organisations to help with many of the topics raised in the play. This was a thoughtful touch and something venues should consider adopting going forward.

The whole experience of traveling to the Belgrade, watching ‘Swim, Aunty, Swim!’, and having the chance to sit in on the post-show talk was amazing! I’m so glad I was able to watch such a great show and would encourage everyone to venture out of London to watch and support new work.

‘Swim, Aunty, Swim!’ is funny, charming, raw, eye-opening, and tear-jerking. It will have you laughing at Aunty Ama’s sass and crying at Aunty Fatu’s loss. It will linger in your mind for a while and hopefully encourage you to take up a new hobby. As for me, I think it’s time I finally learned how to swim!