Swallow review (Riverside Theatres, Parramatta)

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It’s pretty rare for a new Australian theatre company to launch in the current economic and political climate, but a Parramatta-based professional company has been a long time coming. Not only is Parramatta the sixth largest central business district in the country, it’s in a densely and diversely populated part of Sydney suburbia and has had a fine theatre complex in the Riverside Theatre since 1988. In many senses, it’s a major cultural district waiting to happen.

The ambitiously-named National Theatre of Parramatta last week kicked off its inaugural season with a new production of Scottish playwright Stef Smith’s recent hit Swallow. Following two women and one transgender man under various suffocating and isolating modern pressures, this is both a stylistically and dramatically bold piece of theatre.

Rebecca’s (Megan Drury) life is sent into a tailspin when her long-term boyfriend takes up with somebody else. Anna (Luisa Hastings Edge) hasn’t left her flat in several months and is in the process of smashing things apart and building her own nest. Sam (Valerie Berry) is in the process of shedding his old identity, Samantha, and building his true self.

The three strangers are living what could be very separate lives in an unnamed modern city, but they end up having a huge impact on one another when their stories intersect.

It’s not a perfect script: as funny and moving as it can be, some of the metaphors are a little overplayed and the final scenes don’t quite match the intensity of what’s been before. But there’s plenty to love, not least a monologue in which Anna goes through some of the most horrifying and traumatising events in human history and the actions which humans are capable of taking. It’s performed with extraordinary dramatic texture and sincerity by Luisa Hastings Edge, who delivers what is probably the stand-out performance. She finds all the neuroticism of the character and finds truth in her bizarre quirks, and doesn’t shy away from some of the lightly comedic moments.

The other two actors turn in impressive performances: Drury traces her character’s journey brilliantly as she discovers more and more of her own strength over the course of the play, and Berry delivers an honest, understated but carefully wrought reading of Sam.

Kate Champion’s direction matches the writing in terms of inventiveness and whimsy — Champion uses her choreographic skills to create a production that’s abstract, full of motion and rarely literal.

Max Lyandvert’s sound design goes a long way to building great tension, coupled with a sleek, monochrome set by Anna Tregloan, which is slowly broken down by the cast over the course of the performance. Across the front of the stage there are horizontal cords, tightly suspended across the performance space, like rubber bands pulled almost to breaking point. It’s a pretty clear visual metaphor.

Occasionally the text is delivered a little strangely, with misplaced emphases. Champion’s background is largely in dance and physical theatre works, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the physical elements are more solid.

Almost all of the creatives working on this show are women — a rare thing in the theatre — and there’s strength in every element. This is a very promising start for this company and a robust statement about the kind of work they’ll pursue.

Swallow is at the Riverside Theatres, Parramatta until April 30. Featured image: Luisa Hastings-Edge, by Amanda James.

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