First published in The Times, Tuesday August 11
In a relatively short space of time Stef Smith has established herself as a remarkably diverse and elusive playwright. Having first attracted attention as the writer of human trafficking drama RoadKill, which won an Olivier Award in 2012, her subsequent work includes a site-specific piece focusing on three generations of beekeepers and a decidedly off-centre play in which a married couple cope with their grief at the death of their daughter by endlessly dressing up and performing routines from The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.
Clearly, no subject, however strange, is off limits, and Smith’s new work, which heralds her arrival as an associate artist of the Traverse, is her most assured to date. Swallow presents three characters teetering on the brink. While Rebecca (Anita Vettesse) seeks solace in alcohol and self-harming following a break-up, Sam (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) has tentatively begun exploring his gender identity. Meanwhile, Anna (Emily Wachter) is so raddled at the state of the world that she has locked herself in her flat where she loses herself in the mosaic of a pelican she has created from household objects.
These disparate voices are introduced via a series of interlocking monologues with the play’s themes of identity, loneliness, self-creation and self-reliance implied by the subjectivity of the writing. Gradually, though, the three forge connections. Rebecca and Sam meet in a café and hesitantly fall in love, later establishing contact with Anna by way of her letterbox.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
If the playwright’s bringing together of these two strands feels a little contrived, her characters never seem less than real. In opting for a clean, minimal staging, with stark lighting from Philip Gladwell, the director Orla O’Loughlin places exceptional faith in the writing and performances, which is paid off in spades by the cast. Wachter gives a performance of unrelenting vigour as Anna, for whom “going crazy is a full-time job” while the love story between Sam and Rebecca is the most moving you’re likely to see this fringe.