Swell – Lion and Unicorn Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Tom Foreman

Directors: Tom Foreman and Connor Rowlett

What would happen to a coastal community if their small town was slated to be ‘decommissioned’ due to rising sea levels? It’s not a hypothetical question. Writer Tom Foreman’s Swell is an imaginative response to  the Welsh seaside town of Fairbourne, condemned in 2014 to be depopulated by 2054.

It’s a wonderful piece of story-telling. Foreman’s fictional east-coast town of Swell is at first a cheerful local community. The quick, gossipy snatches of dialogue from assorted colourful eccentrics makes it feel like an updated version of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. But the sense of a reassuring stability similar to Thomas’s Llareggub is soon dissipated. Swell’s precarious local economy is underpinned by Chum Buddy, a large pet food factory. Following the National Water Authority’s announcement that they are unable to shore up Swell’s inadequate sea defences, the factory directors swiftly move their operation to Scotland. Two of the play’s three main characters need this factory work to survive. Josh is driven to take a series of minimum-wage jobs locally. Older and more savvy Adi takes the offer of a promotion within Chum Buddy and relocates to Scotland. But Adi’s long-term girlfriend, Ada, Josh’s sister, refuses to abandon her brother, her job at a local café and Swell itself.

What might seem a bleak set-up is redeemed by Foreman’s pacy, often lyrical script. Certain local characters are fleshed out, presented in all their vividness by the powerful acting of the three-person cast, Max Beken, Annabelle Lewiston and Jayant Singh. Beken is particularly notable for his energetic transformations, including the zimmer-frame-wielding Mrs Marlow. Singh, who plays Adi, also makes a marvellously pompous local councillor, whose supposed reassurances leave the townspeople more desperate. There is little sense of wider public reaction to the impending disaster: Foreman’s focus is on the lives of powerless locals. Lewiston is splendid as the talkative café owner. But she has a hard job with Ada, who although intelligent and likeable, becomes less sympathetic the longer she remains doggedly loyal to her community and to loose-cannon Josh. We long for her to abandon her martyrish stand. If she won’t up sticks for Adi and Scotland, why doesn’t she return to college and finish her nursing degree?

But Foreman stays true to his tragic vision. Morale in Swell sinks. People move away. Local unrest grows. Shops are vandalised and people threatened. A neat scene of mindless graffiti-spraying makes literal the ever-present metaphorical writing on the wall. The café-owner is forced to close.

There is never going to be a happy ending. Foreman opts for one that feels overly melodramatic to what was otherwise an exhilarating journey.

Runs until 12 February 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Wonderful story-telling

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