Swallow- Alma Tavern Theatre ***

Swallow Final image

Originally published on Reviews Hub

A person (Hannah Bristow) in checked shirt and leather jacket slicks back their hair, draws a beard on their mirror and puts a sock down their front and begins the first day of being Sam, not Samantha. Rebecca (Lucy Bromilow) is left by her partner, throws glass at the wall, accidentally cuts her cheek with the flying glass and then deliberately carves the glass deeper. Anna hasn’t left her flat in over two years, cocooning herself in and watching her favourite television shows of places she will never go to and in Michelle Fox’s beautifully judged performance breaks apart.

Stef Smith’s Swallow places us in a world of not fully feeling like we belong, of being stranded, trapped in old habits, of trying to make and build relationships in a hard-bitten world where that is easier said than done. Each of the characters at one point or another smash up their living spaces, a physical embodiment of the fracture each have in their soul.

The second in Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s Director Cuts season, Smith’s writing is a slippery, occasionally elliptical, sometimes opaque piece of writing, using pauses and repetitions to powerful effect. In fact under Chloe Masterton’s careful direction the whole piece resembles that of a tone poem, building up an atmosphere of loneliness, of longing and eventually of hope. Its ending feels a little too neat, a little too sugary for my taste, like Richard Curtis has come on board as a story advisor and advised that these characters deserve their own form of an airport dash, which clashes with its sombre tone over the first hour. Ultimately it comes across as a highly promising piece from a talented writer who is still coming to grips with the forms she is experimenting with.

Still Masterton has crafted fine performances from her three-strong cast. Bromilow’s face is etched in a permanent look of pained terror, her world destroyed when her husband trades her in for a new model and she finds herself having to connect again with people around her. Awkward and gawkish she finds solace and then a mental and physical connection with Bristow’s Sam, who imbues Sam with a masculine swagger and cheeky charm that masks the fear and uncertainty underneath. Fox meanwhile, with her pale complexion, looks like she may physically break apart until she learns a lesson in breaking free from her constraints from a bird she nurses back to health.

Costume and set designer Aldo Vazquez Yela confirms the promise from his beautifully previous epic The Tempest design with a simple but smart design, full of jagged cracked walls and mirrors, all slightly askance and off-kilter, a visual representation of the path these lives are taken. Expect big things from Yela moving forward, he is a designer of some talent. Unfortunately, the sound design is not as smart, overtly literal and intrusive, it distracts rather than compliments the piece.

An intense 70 minutes in the tiny Alma space the main reason for seeing this piece is for the committed and highly accomplished performances from its three performers. Its ending may feel a little neat but over the plays duration we’ve come to care for these characters and will them to find a little bit of acceptance and happiness in this tough and lonely world.

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