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FringeReview UK 2023

Low Down

An absorbing play, as breathtaking as one of its  surfing epiphanies. The Swell will break over your head. Let it. You’ll come up for air changed. A small masterpiece.

Director Hannah Hauer-King, Designer Amy Jane Cook, Lighting Designer Elliot Griggs, Sound Designer, Composer & Co-Musical Director Nicola T. Chang, Co-Musical Director Sinéad Rodger

Assistant Director Sam Woof, Casting Director Polly Jerrold, Fight & Intimacy Director Bethan Clark

Production Manager and Technical Director Stuart Burgess, CSM Jenny Skivens, Costume Supervisor Evelien van Camp, Deputy Stage Manager Sussan Sanii, ASM Laura Dewhirst, Production Technician Priva Virdee

Rehearsal & Production Photography Ali Wright.

Till July 29th



Rarely has a new play thrilled quite so exquisitely, so sadly. Isley Lynn’s The Swell – premiered at the Orange Tree directed by Hannah Hauer-King – jumps back and forth through 28 years in 90 minutes, as three women and their younger/older selves confront then then, and then now.

We meet vulnerable B (Sophie Ward) cared for by her lover F (Shuna Snow) who avoids stray phone calls and tends B’s partial stroke. Soon we meet their younger selves, preparing for a wedding – Annie or Anais (Saroja-Lily Ratnavel) and Bel (Ruby Crepin-Glynde) are met by Annie’s Tiggerish old friend Flo (Jessica Clark) surfing round the world.  She’ll stay till the wedding. Flo’s non-stop energy gets to Annie who describes her as “exhausting… all icing and no cake…when we see each other we have a really good time and then she leaves and that’s actually perfect.”

The past is another country: they do music there, and dancing. It’s a raptly syncopated piece too. Composer and co-musical director Nicola T. Chang has created, with Sinéad Rodger, a singular score of songs and motifs that haunt the edges and skies of this work. Joyous dance and recorded voices of the actors themselves (their stage selves echoing on occasion) underscore optimism, envisioning a utopia where women will legally marry. It’s where Bethan Clark’s fight and intimacy-directing is needed most, as filigree and sudden as the dancing’s a literal swell.

Ironically at 29 Flo’s the oldest, but Annie, 27 always plays the adult in the room. Ratnavel’s steady beat of concern and jealousy reflects Annie’s dominance: having to hire and fire others at work, host work parties Bel never feels comfortable with. Ratnavel edges Annie’s leadership with anxiety. How could Annie be good enough for beautiful Bel?  “She is fit though isn’t she” she wants Flo to confirm.

Annie’s even getting her mother to accept she’ll marry her (not legally, we’re still in the world of Section 28). Bel’s silent about her family – her sister pays huge guilt-money though still never speaks to her. They’ll retire on that to Wales.

Bel though, isolated by her whole family, finds Flo’s “all icing” energy as attractive as Flo’s assertion: “I am just the right side of nutcase.” When Flo tells her: “I’m taking you out on the scene… You need to meet the other special people. There are so many of us. You’ll fall in love every day” Bel answers simply: “I’d like that.”

A vortex of complicity, betrayal and danger looms in a familiar triangular shape and its resonances transform their lives. Crepin-Glynde’s performance is a gem of wonder and bewilderment as new worlds open up, bringing anxiety and conflict too. Latterly she’s still and haunted.

Clark, memorable in Sap at Soho recently, here amps to a frantic gust of wiredness, with a monologue to match. But unlike Flo’s relentless exuberance, throwing herself about and forcing others to dance, Flo’s epiphanic moment of surfing is delivered in a mesmeric haze.

So much so that Bel contradicts Flo’s “I’m not very good at being alone.” “I think you are. I think we both are.” Crepin-Glynde manages much in few words and gestures, counterpointing Clark’s own projection of surprise. It’s usually Flo saying things like this. Flo’s depiction of “the swell” in surfing holds an immediate resonance, even comically: how literally to take a heart swelling.

Ward as dignified, dreamy B conveys so much of what she has left – including taking the lead in yoga, or a ritual of removing F’s earrings – and this is the point. You’d think in those beats of non-recognition you were sensing Oliver Sacks’ The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat; indeed it’s referenced. Lynn manages absent strands delicately, never overplaying it.

It also stems from personal knowledge as Lynn states, but the deftness of how she shows B’s non-afflicted self, the way Ward conveys this, is beautifully nuanced. The stroke’s left B not able to register the left sides of things, but F patiently compensates, turning plates round, clocks round. Snow’s sinewy mix of F’s protectiveness and occasional defensiveness owns a bright energy rather defying B’s yoga exhortations. “Let me repay you” F invites B seductively. Someone basking in a warm bath of love – as she does, promising to do B’s hair there.

We only meet A (Viss Elliot Safavi) later on, someone knowing they’re trespassing, desperate to contact B in particular. There’s a softness in Safavi’s portrait, but a steeliness too. A’s contrite, wanting to apologise for the past, and we’ve seen something terrible. F’s having none of it, but the energy shifts.

Designer Amy Jane Cook has given Hauer-King’s direction a clean sweep, with the slightly raised in-the-round stage in soft sage and cream squares, with a cruciform cavity when opened up, to sit and sink in. Elliot Griggs’ lighting and blueness from below shows off more metaphor than stage use (elsewhere it’s deft and undistracting), but the overall focus is so kinetic, the ensembles so energised, that a couple of wineglasses fetched out of the cavity late on, show how little else is needed.

An absorbing play, as breathtaking as one of Flo’s surfing epiphanies. The Swell will break over your head. Let it. You’ll come up for air changed. A small masterpiece.