Swordy-Well

Mon 13th – Sat 25th August 2012

reviews

Lucinda Higgie

at 03:35 on 18th Aug 2012

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The cast, clad in cow masks, are herding us into the theatre. We humans are the real cattle, apparently. I'm pretty scared: 'Swordy-Well' is set in an abattoir, after all, and it's all getting a bit too 'Animal Farm' for comfort. At the very least I'm betting my lapsed vegetarianism is going to take a battering. So it's a surprise when this heightened opening is succeeded by a relatively naturalistic performance of the script. I love the scene changes, which involve the cast gurning to the tune of Carmina Burana, forming tableaus, and putting on their helmets, but I wished that more of this grotesque surrealism had spilled into the scenes themselves. As it is, the two styles jar to the detriment of the scenes which include dialogue. These are sapped of energy by comparison.

This said, the script is impressive, especially considering it was written by a full-time student. Josh Allott writes with a distinctive voice, and his characterisation, particularly the comic yet alarming suddenness of several of the characters, reminded me of the manic trio in 'The Night Heron', Jez Butterworth's first play. On the other hand, Joseph Orty's (Ollie Kerwell) grand statements; his claim, for example, that "people have forgotten that life's about death", that John Clare 2eulogized the land" and that the cows "are livestock, not stocks and shares" put me more in mind of the earnestness and sermonising of 'Equus'. These soundbites, and the repeated inclusion of John Clare quotations (indeed, the play's title is taken from one of his poems) were, I felt, less well-integrated: they smacked of an attempt to inject broad themes into the play artificially rather than letting these emerge naturally.

The set was simple but effective: in particular, colour is used well to pick out details. A desk on one side is red, and a second one, bedecked by the small golden calf, is green. The performances were consistently strong, but it is the female cast members who particularly stand out. Hannah Maddison shines as the vegetarian worker who goes to any lengths to get to the bottom of what is really going on, Laura Woodward puts in a scene-stealing performance as Polish cleaner Maria and Verity Mullan Wilkinson is brilliantly versatile as the farm owner's daughter, Delilah, managing both comedy ("oh, I've eaten every pet I've ever had") and quieter moments deftly.

When the show finishes, we are herded out in the same manner we were herded in, but this time the herding cuts off our applause: we are only given about five seconds to give our ovation. Strong performances and an unusual, promising script made me wish I was allowed longer.

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Pia Dhaliwal

at 10:03 on 18th Aug 2012

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The premise of 'Swordy-Well' sounds a bit like the setup to a joke – what do you get when you mix an abattoir, John Clare’s poetry, and surrealist horror? A commendable effort by the University of Manchester Drama Society’s production of new writer Josh Allot’s script, apparently.

The strongest point of 'Swordy-Well' is definitely the staging – it is quite clear, even from the outset, that a lot of thought and effort has gone into creating and maintaining the atmosphere of the play. The audience is quite literally herded into the theatre by members of the cast wearing disturbing cow masks and jumpsuits. While such clapping and chivvying may only be slightly annoying normally, the masks do make it a hell of a lot more unsettling. It’s certainly one way to set a mood, although I do hope it doesn’t catch on. The stage setting is equally disturbing to look upon – the stage is divided into two portions, colour-coded green and red and eerily lit throughout. Strips of meat hang from the backdrop and props include unsettlingly large knives. I suppose this shouldn’t really be surprising – any show named after a John Clare poem isn’t likely to be cheery.

So, why the cows and the Clare? Allot’s script sets out the story of Joseph Orty (Ollie Kerowell), owner of an independent abattoir in Tadley. He prides himself on the high standards of his slaughterhouse and his deep and abiding love of a particular peripheral Romantic poet. Yet there is an equally deep and abiding fear that his small business will eventually lose out to larger, less humane organisations – but what can he possibly do about it? Certainly nothing that doesn’t involve collateral damage and health code violations, as it turns out.

The quality of the acting is noteworthy – the dialogue flows naturally and the interactions between the characters in the story are both interesting and believable. In particular, abattoir employees Carlton (Hugh Nicholson) and Giles’ (Lawrence Williams) interactions are a pleasure to watch, not to mention Verity Mullen Wilkinson’s excellent portrayal of Delilah, Joseph’s daughter. Although theirs are the more standout performances, it must be said that overall this is not a show lacking in terms of acting ability. This is very much enhanced by the creepy choreography, eerie lighting and haunting music, not to mention the horror evoked by the cast’s increasingly blood-splattered jumpsuits – by and large, each aspect of the production is clearly executed, resulting in a successfully disconcerting experience.

Although strong for a student production of a student script, there were a couple of points where I felt the show stumbled a bit – one example being the character of Maria (Laura Woodward), the Polish cleaner at the abattoir. While her character was amusing, I initially assumed that there would be more to her: as a cleaner and a fairly constant observer of the abattoir’s goings-on, I expected that there might be a more devious aspect to her involvement in the story, and was disappointed when this did not turn out to be the case. Ultimately, it felt as though her character and that of Patricia (Hannah Maddison) could have been reworked into one person. Also given Delilah’s frankly rather odd personality, the attraction between her and Giles at times felt a little hollow – although these are mainly script issues that do not really detract from the generally impressive quality of the show.

Ultimately, 'Swordy-Well' has certainly found itself a niche in the odder, more disquieting shows on offer at the Fringe. It may not be a relaxing show to watch, but it’s certainly a memorable one.

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