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Before the flood

Heather Neill takes a look at a production and its resources which deals with a serious and topical subject with humour and invention

Sink or Swim By Mike Kenny, directed by Guy Holland

Quicksilver company, touring:October 23, Trinity Theatre, Tunbridge Wells; November 4, Dunston Community Centre, Gateshead; Nov 7, Bishop Aukland Town Hall; Nov 10-11, Darlington Arts Centre; Nov 13-14, Rosehill Theatre, Whitehaven; Nov 18, Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea; Nov 22-23, Foremarke Hall, Derby; Nov 29-30, The Muni Art Centre, Pontypridd; December 2-3, Southport Arts Centre; December 7, Redbridge Drama Centre; December 9, Salisbury Playhouse; December 10, Shaftesbury Arts Centre.

Tel: 020 7241 2942

Water. The subject could scarcely be more topical. Before the earthquake in Pakistan, all the recent natural disasters have brought the devastation of floods and their aftermath - from the Asian tsunami in December 2004, to hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the United States and the mudslides in Central America. Yet, ironically, millions of people in the world have insufficient water to drink while gallons of it are wasted in the affluent West. A play about living in flood conditions could be a depressing affair.

But Sink or Swim, presented by the highly experienced Quicksilver company, manages to raise serious questions for children aged eight and over while being a lot of fun.

Carey English, joint artistic director (with Guy Holland) and education director for the company, has put together a detailed education resource book which includes topics from conservation to refugees under subject headings drama, literacy, RE and citizenship. But first and foremost, Sink or Swim is a story. It was written by Mike Kenny in the early 1990s and was first a success for Quicksilver 11 years ago.

There are flood myths in many cultures. The familiar one for children in the UK is likely to be the Old Testament story of Noah, but Quicksilver do not take this for granted and the experience of the play's family - Mad, Dum and Bubba - parallels the traditional tale without following it exactly. In fact they are very like most families would be in confined conditions in that they complain and bicker as well as support each other on their ark. They pass the time as the rains fall by playing I-Spy, singing and painting and there is a running joke which children will want to find variations on. "A couple of sandwiches short of a picnic" is fairly familiar, but what about "Two sausages short of a toad-in-the-hole"? Any ideas?

A blond angel called Gabby comes to warn the family, but they don't take any notice until he wearily dons his wings. Mad (the mum) is played by Valda Aviks who was in Jerry Springer the Opera, so she sings and plays the piano with gusto. The audience makes a contribution too, providing animal noises en masse, but also individual impersonations of a lamb and a dove (gently helped by the cast).

The family imagine what life will be like when they find land again and this provides a starting-point for talking about the essentials if a society is started from scratch. Can things be better than they were before? Will people be able to work together?

Amid the exuberance, there are darker themes. Sailing away on an ark sounds like fun, but there has been suffering and loss before the adventure. Young Bubba is traumatised and refuses to speak, preferring to express herself by painting beautiful animals on the sail. And when a haven is found, it will be a strange place, as strange as a new country to a modern asylum seeker.

Quicksilver began their tour of Sink or Swim (which goes to Wales, the north and west of England until December) at the Arcola Theatre, near their home in north London. Year 5 and 6 children from Gayhurst Primary School in Hackney read and discussed the play with the company and took part in workshops with Sophie Dickens, a local sculptor.

The Arcola provided space for an installation, which the Year 6 children designed their sculptures to fit. Sophie asked them to think of the things they couldn't bear to leave behind, the essentials that would have to go into their ideal ark. Quite a few mums were nominated, but a full English breakfast, a football pitch, a dog and a cat made it into cardboard sculptures as well. A space was reserved for the ark itself and it was carefully measured and built according to requirements, much as Noah's was.

Only this time, never mind ells (an old unit of measurement), Gayhurst's splendid ark is 222cm x 60 cm.

* Local water boards could be asked to provide materials as Thames Water has in north London.

Carey English's resource book, full of suggestions, is free to teachers taking classes to the show


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