If a devastating flood forced us to start the world from scratch, which parts of our society would it be wise to hold on to? That’s the question which Dug Out Theatre’s play ‘Swansong’ asks in a 21st century take on Noah’s Ark, currently showing at the Lowry in Salford after a successful run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Post-apocalyptic fiction is frequently a sombre experience due to the bleak worlds explored. It is also often heavily-laden with exposition, explaining step-by-step how society collapsed so the audience is completely clued-in on the backstory. Swansong fits neither of these descriptions: It is a simple and direct story of four individuals on a swan pedalo who all have different ideas about what mark they could and should make on the future, in way of a notebook of lists they are creating.
The four characters are extremely well-crafted in their differences: Stephen is a toff who yearns for the days of banter with his upper-class friends and dog Rambo. Bobby is a spiritualist who is determined to cling onto her political correctness, poetry and veganism. Clare is the competitive one who pushes the group to do what they can to assuage their situation. Adam is an intellectual, but this brings a sarcastic cynicism which disparages the plans of the others.
Having clearly built the characters first to hang the script on, Sadie Spencer and Tom Black have done a commendable job of writing a play in which every single line is character-driven. The story does not contain many key events, but the dialogue constantly holds our attention, bouncing rapidly among the pedalo in argument and wit. The writing does make a few nice observations (there is a profound mix-up of the lists of all the things the characters miss and everything they considered wrong with the world, which invites a ‘glass-half-full’ look at their situation), but first and foremost the play is driven by character comedy.
Between key moments in the play (for example an opportune run-in with an actual swan…) the cast provide musical and bodily transitions. They create a four-part choir between themselves, whilst physicalising their movements like swans. The singing is not an ‘arty’ cop-out as can often be thrown in to smaller productions, but something which genuinely adds to the overall performance. The cast can all sing – Nina Shenkman (Clare) actually sounds like Lily Allen, no joke. The staging is minimal (rightly so; it all takes place in a boat after all) so these interludes of music and movement do go a long way to stop things feeling stale.
But ‘stale’ is never on the cards – Swansong does not overstay its welcome. With a short runtime of just 50 minutes, it glides towards its end with grace. There are no forced ‘take home’ messages; the characters still rank David Attenborough, the Dark Knight trilogy and Mooncups as key parts of their culture which the future should know about. As for the real future, I would pass on this thought: post-apocalyptic theatre can thrive in simplicity – not driven by ‘high concept’ writers, but by witty and interesting characters. Thanks Swansong.
Cast: Ed Macarthur, Tom Black, Nina Shenkman, Charlotte Merriam Director: George Chitcott Writers: Sadie Spencer, Tom Black Theatre: The Lowry Duration: 50 minutes Dates: Wednesday 3rd – Saturday 6th May