Swallow preview: ‘nuanced’

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Piccolo Theatre – a brand new company within Durham Student Theatre, with aims to ‘produce thought-provoking theatre by creating an immersive and intimate audience experience’ – is offering its debut performance this week, in the form of Swallow by Stef Smith, an eighty-minute, three-character drama which started life at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015.

It was in Edinburgh that Director and founding member of Piccolo Theatre, George Rexstrew, became taken with the play, and he says that it has ‘stuck with [him] ever since’. He claims that nothing quite like this production has ever been staged before in Durham, and whilst this is a bold claim to make, I would be inclined to think that he might be right. Some of the core issues that the play deals with are agoraphobia, alcoholism, and transphobia. Transgender issues, in particular, are not something that we often see played out upon the boards of The Assembly Rooms Theatre, which makes this production an exciting debut, not just for Piccolo, but also for Durham in general.

The actors and Director are all keen to inform me that, whilst the play does deal with some heavy issues, the play itself does not have an entirely sombre tone. The three characters are, according to Rexstrew, ‘incredibly likeable,’ and therefore as an audience we should be charmed and ‘taken with them’. Annie Davison, who will be playing Rebecca, an alcoholic and an abuse survivor, enjoys the wit and humour of her character, and claims that she ‘would be friends with her if [she] met her.’ Similarly, Steph Sarratt, playing the agoraphobic Anna, admits that her character is ‘erratic’, but also ‘loveable’. The cast are clearly rooting for the characters they are portraying, and Rexstrew hopes that the audience will too, viewing the characters as multi-faceted individuals who are interesting and relatable, rather than being defined by the issues they are faced with.

This whole concept of completely understanding the characters and not merely stamping them with the label that society has placed upon them is particularly important for the character of Sam (Matt Dormer), a transgender man who is in the process of coming out and living his life, for the first time presenting himself as male. Labels can be a double-edged sword for minority groups such as the LGBTQ+ community, offering a sense of identity and community on the one hand, whilst also having the potential to be constarining and encourage stereotypes. Much of the mainstream media attention given to the specific label ‘transgender’ has focussed around a very particular, and often very sexualised, view of what it is to be a gender that differs from the sex assigned at birth. Rexstrew assures me that the portrayal of a transgender character in this play is quite different – Sam is a ‘down to earth’ character whose gender, whilst important, is not presented as ‘showy’ in any way – it is just a part of who he is. As Sarratt describes it, the play promotes acceptance, but ‘acceptance in its truest, most genuine form.’

The cast and creative team admit that it has been no mean feat creating such a heavily-loaded piece of theatre in the space of just two weeks, what with lines and cues to learn – the dialogue is snappy and the characters are constantly interrupting one another – in addition to adhering to Rexstrew’s perfectionist approach to directing. Davison commented that he ‘won’t let me get away with things that other directors in Durham do’, such as bringing her own ticks and habits into the role. Rexstrew certainly seems to have pushed his actors into encapsulating their roles as fully as possible, and in watching an extract of the performance I could see that this has paid off – the actors were so immersed in the moment that I couldn’t help but be too. Even from the very small fragment that I saw, watching the actors bounce off each other, instantly creating such believable characters, has made me intrigued as to what this play has to offer. With the promise of an innovative set designed by Producer Genevieve Burns, married with a witty, nuanced script, and a deeply invested cast and creative team, this production has the potential to be very exciting indeed.

Poster: Piccolo Theatre

‘Swallow’ will be showing at The Assembly Rooms Theatre from Thursday, 3rd of November until Saturday, 5th of November at 20:00. Book your tickets here

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