Saturday, May 7, 2016

'Swan Bake' at the Secombe Theatre, 7th May 2016

The press release said:

"Swan Bake is a DIY piece of theatre which splices puppetry, screamo and contemporary dance to tell the story of a drug addicted ballet dancer.

This I gotta see! I couldn't confirm my place fast enough. But as the date ticked ever closer I felt increasing dread. How could the show possibly live up to my fevered imaginings? I figured the best case scenario was a gentle let-down. The worst? I shuddered to think.

Miraculously Swan Bake not only lived up to its marvellously written press release, but was just a damn fine piece of theatre. It's scrappy, frayed at the edges and conceptually twisted, but dammit, it got me laughing. A lot. 

So, Bell (Lucie Shorthouse) is 'yer drug addicted lesbian ballerina. She's hooked on a new Japanese hallucinogen called nonce - her addiction having already cost her a prime place at the Royal Ballet and is now sending her life spiralling further down the plughole. Fortunately she's got a girlfriend, Maria (James Watkins) who acts as a safety net. She's a nonce addled lesbian nun unhappily lodging in the house of the perverted Father Rupert (Alex Stevens).

Things take a turn for the worse when Father Rupert gets a beakful of nonce and immediately decides that its the drug for him. With a televised gig at Wembley Stadium on the cards he blackmails Maria, threatening to excommunicate her unless she either gets him a lot of drugs or submits to his sexual degradation. Meanwhile Bell is hoping to regain her place in the ballet, but finds herself dragged into Maria's desperate situation.

Also there's some kind of gigantic rat dressed as the Pope, a deranged muppet, ballerinas composed of sliced up mannequins, dancing gimps and... well frankly it all blurred together into a kaleidoscope of surreal oddness as a stumbled out into the night.

I'd worried that the show would fall prey to "monkey cheese" humour: the gags composed entirely of non-sequiturs without regard to context or timing. What this style of comedy fails to understand is that a drug addicted lesbian ballerina isn't intrinsically funny, but instead has the potential to be funny. And you can only realise that potential with clever writing.

Swan Bake's got cleverness in spades, via Samson Hawkins' damn fine script (he also directs). His characters are ludicrous caricatures but they each get moments of pathos; brief moments of seriousness that make the subsequent comedy that much more effective. He's also got a hell of a turn of phrase: the programme leading with the pithily bitter: "I'm really angry at my parents for letting me follow my dreams, because now I can't get a job".

Similarly memorable lines pepper the production: for example Bell moans that she can't get a ballet job because Eastern European dancers snap them all up, to be told "Oh yeah, foreigners comin' over 'ere, taking our drug addicted ballerina's jobs" or the fantastically bitchy "Oh my god she is so fat she's exploding".  There's something laugh-out-loud worthy every couple of minutes (maybe less) - and things eventually build to an astonishingly blistering Howard Beale-esque rant directed at the Catholic Church ("we're not just good at making a lot of money - we're great at fucking kids!"), McDonalds, the audience, Americans, fat people and a deeply complacent public. It's a beautifully nihilistic punk-rock diatribe - leaving the audience stumbling and punch-drunk.

It's brilliantly delivered by Alex Stevens too. Stevens is probably the best thing in the show. He's got a face straight out of comic books - goggle-eyes, bared teeth and supervillain sneer. His body language is stiff, angular and precise, moving as if he's animated by Nick Park. Lucie Shorthouse and James Watkins are no slouches either - funny, desperate and believably ensorcelled by the fictional drug. I particularly dug Shorthouse's blissed out blinking as she does another hit and Watkins' ramrod straight, clenched fist high.

On top of my worries about not living up to the press release and overuse of random humour I had one more. It was in Sutton. Who the hell knows where Sutton even is? Well it turns out that it's about 50 minutes out of London Victoria in some weird 'here be dragons' part of the London suburbs. 

It's the furthest I've travelled to see a show in ages - so here's your pull quote: "Swan Bake was worth going to Sutton for."


Swan Bake is at the Secombe Theatre tonight only, then at the Brighton Fringe. Info here.

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