Wednesday April 24, 2024
THE SWELL
Review

THE SWELL

By Diana Simmonds
February 19 2024

THE SWELL, Akimbo + Co with New Ghosts Theatre Company at the Old Fitz, 17 February-2 March 2024. Photography by Phil Erbacher: above - Jessica Bell, Alexandra Keddie, MOnique Salle; below - Deborah Jones, Katherine Hopwood Poulsen; below again - Jones, Fiona Press

An independent theatre company’s personality can change drastically (and fatally) when a successful artistic/production team moves on. Yet, as in so much else it’s done, the changing of the guard from Red Line was seamless, and with the arrival at the helm of Lucy Clements and Emma Wright, aka New Ghosts Theatre Company, it’s a crucial same-same-but-different result. Opening the year with a five-star production of Martin McDonough’s The Lonesome West, New Ghosts continues with another exciting offering, albeit from another planet.

Isley Lynn’s 2018 play The Swell won her the London Evening Standard’s 2023 Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright, and Clements and Wright were quick to acquire the license. Programming it for Mardi Gras was another smart move.

The Swell opens on a tenebrous scene of a ramshackle timber jetty in late evening light. The sound of breakers is hardly more apparent than the mists swirling around the dilapidated structure. It’s a peaceful, oddly homely sight and effortlessly settles the audience into a place separate from the pub upstairs. (Set by Hannah Yardley, sound designer: Clare Hennessy. Lighting design: Saint Clair.)

The Swell places three women – Bel, Annie, and Flo – in their interconnected lives simultaneously but 28 years apart, with two actors representing each as the younger and older selves. The play opens with young Annie (Jessica Bell) and young Bel (Alexandra Keddie) professing their love and intention to marry after a headlong six-month romance.

THE SWELL

Annie’s childhood friend and restless wanderer Flo (Monique Salle)  arrives unannounced. A charismatic human dynamo, she intends to help celebrate the occasion whether they like it or not and, of course, to be the catalyst for change. What that change might be is signaled in a wonderfully subtle and easy-to-miss exchange between two sides of the emerging triangle.

Exactly what happened is not spelled out and when 28-years-later-Flo (Fiona Press) contacts Annie (Deborah Jones) and Bel (Katherine Hopwood Poulsen), she is dripping with guilt and sadness. Perhaps in the throes of the 12 Steps and up to Step 8 - apologising? It’s not as straightforward as that, however, and indeed nothing about The Swell is straightforward – not the lovers, nor the friends nor the friendships. An unexpected and unusual twist sends these three hapless pinballs spinning in directions that few could anticipate.

What has happened to Bel in the interim is a delve into the aftermath of an illness that’s both alarming and fascinating by turn. How Annie has dealt with it is equally so and explains why they are living in quiet isolation by the sea. For Flo, the gradual realisation of the couple’s situation and underlying predicament – and therefore of her own – is touching.

Actor-turned-director Julia Billington is blessed with six fine actors to bring this complex story to life. In its 90 minutes, the play throws up the small dramas of everyday love, betrayal, and – eventually – sacrifice. Yet it’s often more mysterious than necessary as a visual or logical link with each of the trio to her older or younger self is missing. The older women, in particular, spend more time communing with the theatre’s walls than is either interesting or useful. Physically, visually, and spatially the absence of connection between the two generations is occasionally jarring. And a couple of oddly ugly costume choices that bear no apparent relation to either the character or her other self aren’t helpful either.

THE SWELL

Nevertheless, the play is absorbing and, within the limits set for them, each of the six actors is equally engrossing. In particular, there’s Alexandra Keddie’s grasp of understated action, while Monique Salle’s irresistible ebullience is at the opposite end of the scale. As the older Bel, Katherine Hopwood Poulsen brings vivid grace to a damaged life, while Deborah Jones’ hesitant circling of the damage and her attempts at remedy are moving. Jessica Bell and Fiona Press have less substance to work with: Bell is the conventional young lover and Press rarely escapes the wall, but both deliver strongly when released to do so.

The Swell is rare in its articulate story-telling and imaginative twists on conventional tropes. It’s also refreshing to see a stage occupied so powerfully by women with moments that elicit audible gasps from an audience! Recommended.

 

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