Review by Rosie Holmes
Love, sacrifice and betrayal are at the centre of Isley Lynn’s Play The Swell. Originally written for Hightide’s Summer festival in 2018, and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Playwriting in 2020, director Hannah Hauer-King brings The Swell to Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre. It’s a queer love story that spans decades, that will simultaneously swell and break your heart.
In a time-hopping narrative, we follow Bel, Flo, and Annie at two points in their lives, around 30 years apart. In the earlier years Bel and Annie are newly engaged and deeply in love until Flo, a bubbling ball of excitement and energy, and an old friend of Annie’s returns from her travels and a love triangle begins to develop. Compared to Annie’s strait-lacedness and work attire, Flo is carefree, spending her days surfing, wrists adorned with gap year wristbands. In the later years we see a couple, Bel and Flo, rurally isolated, with Bel recovering from a stroke and dependent on Flo, who is not only her lover but also her caregiver.
The first half of the show almost plays out like a 90’s romcom, armed with the soundtrack and tone to match. We see a flirtatious yoga session between lovers, and a fun night out of dancing and drinks amongst friends. As the play progresses the frothiness slowly disappears as a feeling of unease increases. All is not as it seems as rom-com gives way to a more psychological drama with a gasp inducing twist that is worth the wait.
A formidable cast bring the characters to life, and although there are standouts, they all have their chance to shine. Jessica Clark is effervescent as the young Flo, full of energy and encapsulating the carefree persona of the self-confessed nomad. It is easy to see why her bolt of energy and excitement attracts the cautious Bel. On the other hand, Saroja-Lily Ratnavel, provides a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of the younger Annie, collected and calm, but also with an uneasy and underlying melancholy, almost seemingly on the verge of aggression. Juxtaposed with Flo, it is no wonder the unsure Bel finds herself torn between the two; Annie provides stability and calm, comforting her as she experiences a panic attack, Flo provides the promise of adventure. Completing the trio of young women is Ruby Crepin-Glyne as Bel, and while her character acts frustratingly throughout, Crepin-Glyne’s incredible portrayal of vulnerability ensures she is a likeable and sympathetic character, who may just break your heart.
While the three younger women portray the thrills and fun of early love, though tinged with insecurity and fragility, the three older women expertly portray a trio of characters who have experienced loss, love and betrayal. Shauna Snow is tender in her characterisation of Flo, awkward at times, which makes sense as the plot’s biggest twist is unveiled. Viss Elliot Safavi also provides plenty of unease as Annie appears after a long absence, articulating the painful consequences of young love and mistakes made. A star turn is made by Sophie Ward, who plays the older Bel, touching and lifelike she displays the fragility but also humanity of a stroke survivor muddled by her words and isolated by the world but still able to love and live fiercely.
The casting choices are well made in terms of the female-led cast’s talents. Interestingly, even though the cast play the older and younger versions of the same roles, the casting has not been done based at all on likeness to one another. This adds to the beautiful uncertainty of exactly who is who, central the plot, that grows within the play, but also causes the audience to ask a lot more questions than perhaps they would if they knew exactly who each of the actress’s counterparts were. It asks the audience to examine not only the relationships presented before them on stage but the very meaning of love and its various nuances. Is one type of love more accepted or valued than another, and can true love exist when deceit is at play?
The Orange Tree Theatre’s round is the perfect setting for this piece. It’s simply set, a large marble podium forms the stage that in the first half becomes a bar, a dance floor or a garden freshly planted with geraniums. Several moving tiles, reveal a hollow stage, cleverly and simply allowing the stage to transform into a hospital bed, bar stools or even a beach. Hannah Hauer-King’s direction adds to the increasing unease of the piece, all characters are visible to the audience for the entirety of the piece, nowhere to hide, standing on the periphery of the action. The older characters watch their past selves make mistakes, an air of foreboding as they occasionally react. The younger characters also watch their older counterparts, ever present shadows of their past mistakes, betrayal and hurt. The piece is accompanied by a beautiful vocal score. Again, lively at the beginning, accompanying a fun night out scene, but increasingly more haunting. Characters offstage echo the action on stage with gasps or repeated words and the music becomes more and more melancholy.
This is a queer story, and queerness most certainly informs the narrative. Bel, we discover, has never been in a lesbian relationship before, and is cautious and unsure. It is therefore easy to see why she is trapped between, leaning on Annie, as well as finding excitement with Flo. Her unsure nature and estrangement from her family as a result of her sexuality also makes her isolation in her later years more believable and thus makes the huge plot twist all the more realistic. However, while this is a queer story, it is not about queerness. Isley Lynn has written about love in a tender and touching way that explores universal themes of deceit and betrayal.
The Swell is hauntingly beautiful, as well as heart-breaking. Its 90 minute journey through love, betrayal, attachment and care. A formidable all female cast bring Isley Lynn’s touching and gripping story to life with wonderful performances and an enchanting vocal score, creating a wonderful exploration of the human condition of love.
The Swell plays at Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until 29th July 2023, tickets are available here- THE SWELL | What's On | Orange Tree Theatre
Photos by Ali Wright