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  • Flora Gosling

Review: Swell (Underbelly Cowgate)

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

A community falls apart as the tide comes creeping in

It is hard to give examples of the scale of the climate crisis that will get through to British people. A summer that is a bit hotter, and wildfires in faraway places? Too small, not frightening enough. Total environmental collapse? Too big, impossible to conceptualise. An English seaside town being “decommissioned” and scheduled for demolition due to rising sea levels? Yes, that hits a terrifying sweet spot. Tom Foreman’s play focuses on two siblings whose small town is set to be demolished and depopulated within the next fifty years, and they must decide whether to stay in the town they have always lived in, or let it die and “move away before the corpse starts to rot.”

And as that description suggests, this is much more of a drama about the lives of the residents than a call to action. In a way plays like this, which are set amongst the consequences of climate change, are setting the tone for what we can expect from theatre in the coming years when the experiences of environmental catastrophes will outweigh any theatrical attempts to avoid them. There is a parable in Swell about how British society reacts to a crisis, but it is more concerned with telling a story about family and community than creating a detailed allegory about the climate crisis.

In fact, that is what makes this show successful - because you believe in these characters and how much they care about their home town. At first, their loyalty is admirable, as they vow to fight the legislation telling them that their town is doomed. But as the play continues that loyalty turns to stubborn, trauma-ridden arrogance, which then turns to a state of desperation. The pacing is impeccable, as is the direction by Foreman and Pip Pearce. By the end, you feel as though you have traversed a great length of time, and watched this town disintegrate before your eyes.

Rachel Nicholson and Max Beken play the siblings at the heart of the play, Ava and Max. Neither character is perfect, both have flaws and make mistakes and ultimately make choices that drive their relationship apart and hurt those around them. The same is true of Adi (Karan Maini), the third character in the play and the cold, practical voice of reason who moves away within the first third of the performance. Nicholson and Beken are wonderful as the sibling pair, who show their familiar love for each other but also a sense of reluctant obligation. Beken’s layered performance is especially admirable; beneath his character’s laddish disdain we can see his vulnerability.

He is most animated when speaking about overtourism, which is a strong theme throughout the performance. It is a topic that is increasingly relevant in everyday life and on the news but gets surprisingly little artistic coverage. Foreman brings attention to the experience of living in a town that is treated like a fairground during high season, at the expense of the residents trying to get on with their lives. It is a theme that local audiences in Edinburgh can strongly relate to, which is why it is all the more confusing that, during a scene in which Ava is asked if she would consider moving to Scotland, she sarcastically replies “Scotland? With the bagpipes and the biannual independence vote?”. It is ironic that such a belittling and divisive line has been included in an Edinburgh Fringe show about disrespectful tourists.

That brief moment aside, this is a performance that tells a compelling and original story and shows off the Foreman’s talent for dialogue, pacing, and writing conflict. It may not say as much about the climate crisis as audiences are expecting, but with writing and performances this strong Swell is well worth seeing regardless. Four stars.

Whispers from the Crowd: "I loved it. It mixed the seriousness and the comedy really well, it was very powerful."

Swell will run at Underbelly Cowgate in Belly Laugh until the 28th of August


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