As a young, naïve Fresher, Durham Student Theatre (DST) looms as a mysterious, alluring world before me. This is my first glance into the intricacies and challenges of a DST production. Piccolo Theatre’s version of Stef Smith’s Swallow particularly stood out to me. “Who said smashing things up was a bad thing?” This trio show is a masterpiece in staging, lighting, acting and sound. Both aesthetically astounding and deeply moving, it is definitely the most impressive show I have seen during my first six weeks at Durham. It really proves the point that less is more.
Swallow tells the interlocking story of three individuals. There is Rebecca, the alcoholic divorcee, Anna, the crazed recluse and Sam, the nervous transsexual. Their lives merge in unexpected and often amusing ways. Anna and Rebecca live in the same building. Sam and Rebecca date until Rebecca discovers Sam’s true sexuality. Both Sam and Rebecca attempt to help Anna leave her flat. Piccolo’s production was spot on. Each character was perceptively performed. Anna, played by Steph Sarratt, showed the subtleties of loneliness, whether that was in her flittering concentration or her wild imagination. Rebecca, played by Annie Davison, was sassy and destructive; the perfect cover for a broken heart. Sam, played by Matt Dormer, was intensely believable in his presentation of a woman’s desire to be a man. Although the action is dominated by extended monologues, the audience’s attention is never dropped. Whether this is in a darkly-humoured jealous fit or an episode of self-discovery, each moment is filled with tender revelations. Even the structure of the play itself is fluid and beautifully arranged.
The definition and rawness of each character is what makes this play so captivating. Their insecurities and longings are exposed. Nothing is hidden from the audience. We are taken aback by the power of simple human emotion. This was aided by the luminous set and the enchanting music, that works so well with the seemingly-everyday reality of this production. The bright door in the centre of the stage hinted at something cosmic, and its comforting glow added spiritual warmth to the play. In truth, it is just three characters. Nothing else.
Although an avid theatre-goer, this was my first experience of student theatre. Swallow’s universality is what made it so appealing to me. Whether it is the National Theatre’s main summer production or Basingstoke’s youth theatre’s Saturday show, the financial backing is not a factor. Swallow relies solely on an intense quality of acting and a true connection with human feelings. This is something that, undeniably, all three actors achieved. Anna particularly stood out for me. Her tumbling thoughts and fervent imagination drew the audience to question her true character. Why is she by herself? What caused her to exist in such a way? Such questions are explored, but never answered. That is the real tension in the play. Is it uplifting or are we left in a state of confusion and loss?
Although, I have to admit, all of the Durham Student Theatre I have seen has been of an astonishing standard, Swallow surpasses all. Its simplicity outshone the more complicated productions. Samuel Kirkman’s exquisite photos truly give credit to this. In some ways, this article seems pointless. If you didn’t watch it, you won’t have another opportunity. Although there is an upcoming big-name show, Richard III, my advice would be to watch those shows without the big reputations attached to them. They may surprise you.
Photograph: Samuel Kirkman