first night


Naoise Murphy is charmed by Piccolo Theatre's debut production of 'Swallow'.

Swallow, by Stef Smith, is the debut production from new theatre company Piccolo. As a first show, with a first-time director (George Rexstrew), it is by no means an easy choice. A three-hander about break-ups, breakdowns, transitions and identity, it is alternately haunting, hilarious, searching and uplifting.

The first thing that has to be noted about this production is the lighting. Moving in perfect sync with the action, creating tension in ways I didn’t think possible, technical director Matthew Jennings and lighting designer Peter Noble deserve huge praise. But the effect would not have been possible without the magnificent work of set designer Genevieve Burns; her entirely white stage was a thing of simple beauty.

The performances were excellent all round. Steph Sarratt pulsed with frantic energy as Anna, the wide-eyed agoraphobic who is slowing smashing up her flat. Her physicality was especially compelling throughout, and her violent outburst shook me to my core, contrasting sharply with her child-like demeanour through most of the play. Annie Davison’s caustic, alcohol-dependent Rebecca was the stand-out performance. Her effortless naturalism kept the production grounded, something which the script definitely needed at times. Davison’s obvious ease on stage contrasted nicely with Matt Dormer’s more stilted portrayal of Sam, who is still completing the transition from his former identity as Samantha. This is not a criticism, however. The stiff awkwardness of Dormer’s physicality seemed perfectly calculated to sympathetically portray a character still coming to terms with a complicated relationship to their body. The relationship between Sam and Rebecca provided some of the most heart-wrenching moments in what was a highly emotional play.

Rexstrew has clearly choreographed the production to perfection. The cast worked admirably with and around one another, effortlessly unfolding their interlocking stories. At times, however, it felt almost too well rehearsed, as if the actors were anticipating one another’s lines in conversation and just readying themselves to say their next one. This was noticeable in the more realistic, conversational scenes, which suffered a little from a lack of the naturalism that was so evident in the rest of the play. But elsewhere, the refreshing spontaneity of delivery ensured that these moments of stiffness were barely noticeable. Sarratt, Davison and Dormer all gave gripping performances, leaving the audience hanging on their every word.

The resolution of a couple of other minor faults would polish the performance even further. Some more attention to sound levels would help with the clarity of the actors’ lines. Music was at times distracting and it became difficult to hear over the special effects towards the end. A few tiny line hiccups can be attributed to the expected first night nerves.

But none of this damaged the essential brilliance of Swallow. The lyricism of Smith’s piece, its painful truths and wry humour, were thoughtfully crafted into a truly charming hour of theatre. In short, this is a debut production that Piccolo Theatre can be proud of.

4 November 2016

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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