Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 11 November 2011

The Swallowing Dark

Theatre 503 ⋄ 1st – 26th November 2011

The whole truth.

Carmel Doohan

‘I walked in here with the UK Borders Agency behind me and behind them is the Home Office and behind them is nothing.’ To someone who has only experienced the sinking gloom of a Jobcentre interview, it is hard to imagine what the swallowing dark of immigration bureaucracy must feel like. Lizzie Nunnery is determined to show us; her writing wears its research lightly but the details are convincing.

Asylum seeker Canaan’s life depends on his ability to convince case worker, Martha that his story is true and makes sense. And it is ‘making sense’ and who defines such a thing, that is being investigated. Nunnery’s insistence on the contradictory and ambiguous nature of both narrative and morality keep this story fresh, and our flawed immigration system is shown to be ridiculously inadequate when faced with the complexity of the material it wishes to process.

Alex Eales’s minimal design almost steals the show. Humming, flickering strip lights switch on with a ferocity that is affronting and the bare right angles of the scuffed office have the finality of a freshly stamped file. Towards the end, when Canaan’s window glows with a soft yellow dawn, it is incredibly moving. Gentle city sounds and seagulls make the Liverpool that surrounds the office real and highlight the claustrophobia of Canaan’s cramped flat. The simplicity of prop use is impressive; Allyson Ava-Brown moves believably between brusque Liverpudlian Martha and sweet African wife Nomsa by way of only a scarf.

Form and function meet elegantly as Martha scans pixelated CCTV-like interview footage, rewinding and fast forwarding endlessly, in search of the facts. Canaan’s folk tales resist easy interpretation- “What does that mean? Is there some kind of moral in that?”- and when the finale of one tale is revisited later, Louise Rhoades-Brown’s shadow animation creates a perfectly timed illustration of that which cannot be incorporated into a rigid bureaucratic system.

While the shifting nature of meaning is handled beautifully at times, at other points it is overplayed. Martha’s brother has been arrested in a violent incident and she tells and re-tells a story of what she thinks might have happened. The same descriptions, slowly, through repetition, take on different meanings, the sentences re ordered to provide a different account. Nunnery’s control of language is impressive but the assumed link is too direct- rather than illuminating Canaan’s situation, the audience is slightly patronised by the reiteration of themes the main story has built up so naturally. Sudden spikes in tension sometimes feel forced; there is not enough time to enter one dynamic before it is twisted into the next. There are similarities in structure to Joe Penhall’s Blue Orange: two people in an office, the analysis of narrative as a method of judgement, the power dynamics shifting as language ownership and interpretations change – but the handling of the material here is less subtle. The writing is full of power and potential but there are occasional moments of cliché.

Nunnery is saying things that very much need to be said in this confident and imaginative production. There is great intelligence and originality in her vision but she needs to have more faith in her audience; situations this convincing do not need to be forced into a series of dramatic twists in order to keep people entertained – imagery this evocative can speak for itself.


Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.

The Swallowing Dark Show Info

Directed by Paul Robinson

Written by Lizzie Nunnery

Cast includes Allyson Ava-Brown, Wil Johnson




Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.