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Reviews EdinburghNationalReviews Published 26 August 2016

Review: Swansong at Pleasance Courtyard

Pleasance Courtyard ⋄ Until 28th August 2016

A thoroughly uplifting apocalyptic show: David Ralf reviews DugOut’s latest play.

David Ralf
Swansong at Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh. Photo: Milly Smith.

Swansong at Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh. Photo: Milly Smith.

Things I’d miss: friends, family, libraries, protracted board games, gin, David Attenborough.

Things I’d be glad are gone: pop-up ads, insects, hangovers, totalitarian regimes, disease, pigeons

After their big musical devised shows The Sunset Five and Inheritance Blues, Swansong is DugOut’s chamber piece, with unaccompanied hymns replacing the rockabilly sensibilities of their earlier work. Written by Tom Black and Sadie Spencer it’s the tightest show the Leeds University graduate company have produced to date – dealing with the darkest of material while still ensuring that it is shot through with esoteric humour.

Four strangers have escaped a world-destroying flood. They sit aboard a pedalo shaped like a swan, and they have nearly run out of protein bars. As far as they are aware, they are the last folks on earth, and they can’t stand one another. But intercut with their squabbling there are flashes of strange religious ceremonies which seem to be derived from the story of these four ‘founder’ ‘fathers’. As Claire, Stephen, Adam and Bobbi decide in broad but ultimately naturalistic sceneswhether to mourn the end of all the great things in humanity or celebrate the end of all plague, cruelty and evil, they shape this odd future religion, which is accompanied by swanlike (by which I mean ‘species-accurate’ rather than ‘graceful’) dumbshow and harmonies.

While there is something of Anne Washburn’s post-electric Mr Burns to the premise, Swansong’s character-led humour and its upbeat ending makes for a thoroughly uplifting apocalyptic show. While each of their characters fall into simple categories – the joker, the cynic, the jock and the hippy, each is prevented from being one-note by generous performances from DugOut familiar faces. Tom Black’s Adam sighs and moans his way through the end of the world before discovering from first principles his own reasons to be optimistic. Ed MacArthur as Stephen demonstrates the gentle comradeship hiding behind stereotypical laddish behavior. Sports-mad Claire (Nina Shenkman) has a near hyperactive insistence on action, which reveals itself to be capable leadership.

It’s almost as if each of these convenient identities hides a different kind of socially-sanctioned compassion – a necessary outlet in a world which Adam reminds us is full of war, child abuse and malaria, but in which four strangers could also experience such difficulty pedaling together, let alone speaking. The brilliantly tight-lipped newcomer to the company Charlotte Merriam plays the vegan, spiritualist Bobbi – and while it is a kind of cruel punchline to have her discovers her bloodlust in extremis, what lies underneath her highly mockable opinions and beliefs is always revealed to be love and generosity at root. A resiliently good-natured show, this is DugOut at their best, if not their biggest. It should go down in history – however long that turns out to be.

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David Ralf

David Ralf is a writer and critic in London. He won the Sunday Times Harold Hobson Award for reviewing at the ISDF in 2012, and the Kenneth Tynan Prize for his reviews for the Oxford Theatre Review in 2011. He draws pens and doodles at Pens by Pens.

Review: Swansong at Pleasance Courtyard Show Info


Produced by DugOut Theatre

Directed by George Chilcott

Written by Tom Black and Sadie Spencer

Cast includes Tom Black, Ed MacArthur, Nina Shenkman, Charlotte Merriam

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