The Boy on the Swing – Brewery Theatre, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol, ***

The Boy on the Swing

A man picks up a business card off the floor, dials it and thus begins a dizzying and disorienting journey which will lead to an eventual tête-à-tête with God (or is it?). Coming across as a mixture of Kafka’s The Trial and 21st century Ionesco mixed with Douglas Adams, Joe Harbot’s The Boy on the Swing possesses some cracking jokes, some frustrating repetition and a feeling come the end that it may be more style than substance.

Earl – given an everyman performance that suits the name and played with great charm and blank confusion by Peter Edwards – soon finds that his call puts him into contact with the Trust and Hope Foundation which promises a direct hotline to the divine. Submitting himself to bizarre personality and initiation tests at the foundation offices with a host of caricatures, he eventually finds himself drugged, stripped and meeting a man who claims he is God and is delighted just to get the chance to celebrate a birthday with him.

Whether this is actually a meeting with the omnipotent or simply an elaborate con is something that Harbot’s play and Laura Jasper’s production is happy to leave unanswered. By having her actors move the scenery in precise transitions, we are unsure if Jasper is using her actors productively, or pulling back the curtain and showing us the corporation creating their elaborate ploy. Its tone is best when it goes for comedy; early exchanges over the phone have the familiar farcical feel of speaking to a call centre operative, a later memory game become a Herculean melting pot of pressure and hysteria. There are points when the tone drops the laughs and turns fraught and threatening, but neither the writing nor the production can sustain this.  It’s this tone that leaves us feeling uncertain about the substance behind the façade, is it a play about the commodification of faith or simply a play that piles set piece upon set piece?

If it is the latter, there is enough good work to keep us on-board, even if it does feel a touch baggy and repetitive over its ninety minutes. Each actor manages to make his mark: Edwards grounds the whole thing in his blank confusion, Karl Wilson’s Donald is the calm, in control delegate from the foundation, Harry Egan a forgetful, dim receptionist and Dominic Allen’s William a manic, petulant, vicious man-child.

As the debris of the set is cleared, we finish with Matt Jessup’s potential deity and Earl having a simple conversation about life. The manic energy dissipates and it finishes with simplicity over the absurd. It earns its quiet end and is a reminder that “the rest is silence”.

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