THE SWELL at the Orange Tree Theatre
“The play is a fiendishly clever piece of writing, served brilliantly by a formidable company”
They say it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for’, or ‘never trust a smiling cat’. Although not perfect in their analogy, it would be a similar phrase that describes how we feel walking away from Isley Lynn’s new play “The Swell”. Lynn’s writing is deceptively artful and astute, crafty yet judiciously crafted. She has that rare gift of duping us into thinking we are on safe ground, but then abruptly pulling that ground away from under our feet.
Conceived five years ago as part of Hightide’s summer writing festival, director Hannah Hauer-King has helped steer the piece towards its premiere at the Orange Tree Theatre. Her close attachment shows up in the crisp and sensitive staging of the text. Specifically played in the round there is nowhere really to hide; a challenge that is embraced. When not directly involved in in the action, the characters are still ever present; in shadows, watching, chanting or silently echoing the unfolding drama centre stage.
The “Swell” in the play’s title refers variously to the crest of a wave, the metaphorical rush of blood to the heart when in love, or the rising of a chorister’s chest. But also, to the swelling in the brain of a blood clot that can cause a stroke – which informs the bulk of the brilliantly executed shifts and twists that shape our understanding of the characters’ journeys; their motives, relationships and deceptions.
The action shifts between then and now. Annie and Bel are seemingly in love, preparing for their wedding. Until Flo – a childhood friend of Annie’s – crashes into their lives with predictable results. Suffice to say the wedding never takes place. Jessica Clark fires Flo’s spirit with an energy that races ahead of her bubbly free spirit. Saroja-Lily Ratnavel, as the young Annie, veils her emotional scar tissue with taut jitteriness that borders on violence, while Ruby Crepin-Glyne’s rootless Bel is caught in the slow dance of domesticity, aching for the tempo to change. Sophie Ward, Shuna Snow and Viss Elliot Safavi are the girls thirty years later. The extraordinarily accomplished performances tease out the intervening backstory with an understated intensity that boils beneath the gentle simmering. It feels like a caress, but all along it is scorching us.
The play is a fiendishly clever piece of writing, served brilliantly by a formidable company of actresses. You cannot avoid the fact that queerness runs through it like marble. However, like Brokeback Mountain for example, the fears and prejudice sadly still experienced are addressed without coming across as a piece of queer writing. Sexual identity is not being scrutinised, yet questions and assumptions of personal identity are thrillingly exposed and cannily upturned.
The literal and the figurative walk hand in hand. Imagine them walking through a rather predictable romcom, but then they turn a corner and are ambushed by a psychological thriller. One in which lies come in all shades of white, and betrayal can be the kindest act. The mood is underpinned, though not particularly enhanced, by Nicola T. Chang’s a Capella vocal score. The essence lies within the dialogue and the drama, and swells into a fine fusion of writing and performance.
Reviewed on 29th June 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Ali Wright
Previously reviewed at this venue: