Swivelhead

Wed 10th – Mon 29th August 2016

reviews

Ellen Hodgetts

at 10:04 on 22nd Aug 2016

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“You can’t have a war with no war in it.” It is around the complexities of this statement that ‘Swivelhead’ revolves, questioning the morals and ethics of modern day warfare with a script that is at once serious, comic and intensely thought provoking.

The play tracks the interactions of two drone pilots, Paddy, squadron leader, and Callum, young and newly qualified, who have different ideologies about the air strikes and drones on which they work. Their developing relationship is narrated in parallel with Paddy’s relationship with his sister in the build up to her wedding, and we are introduced to three well developed characters who interact with ease.

The theatre space lends itself well to the duality of this narrative – an impressively complex set for a Fringe venue, it works across two levels and incorporates projection mapping as well as filmic elements. The downstairs houses the container where Paddy and Callum work, whilst the upstairs is the now-rotting tree house where Paddy and his sister spent their childhood. The actors’ transitions between the two are seamless, often masked by recordings upon two television screens which narrate aspects of Paddy’s childhood, most commonly exploring his relationship with his sister. The incorporation of this material creates a haunting echo of the present day relationship between Paddy and Hattie played out by the actors onstage.

The script is well-written and powerful – the heavy political ideas that are discussed, primarily in the conversations between Paddy and Callum are dealt with intelligently. Their dialogue retains the cadence of natural speech, and is never forced. All three actors present a gripping performance, yet the stand out is Ben Dyson as Paddy. His impressive onstage physicality captures his increasingly fragile state of mind. His transition from a confident ex RAF pilot into paranoia and confusion is marked by the two ‘levels’ of his world becoming confused, and merging into one another. However, whilst both are well written and acted, the two parts never become fully cohesive, and jostle for attention in a fight in which neither completely triumphs.

Whilst complex ideas of politics and morals are discussed, they are never entirely expanded upon, and as a result, such ‘big ideas’ tend to linger at the forefront of the narrative while never taking centre stage. They are overshadowed by Paddy’s mental collapse, as his moral psychological discomfort culminates in his transformation into an owl. This corporeal change, however well portrayed by Dyson, does ultimately let the play down. The narrative is destabilised by the farcical end to this transition, which undercuts the poignancy of the writing and the important questions that are raised throughout.

Swivelhead is a brilliant feat of new writing: comic, touching, witty and immensely thought-provoking. It is, however, too much for an hour and twenty minutes. Whilst the ideas are there, they are never fully realised, and consequently begin to lose some of their clarity and meaning.

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Darcy Rollins

at 16:25 on 22nd Aug 2016

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This play is a classic story of one man’s fight with himself and his past. It is also a story in which a man turns into an owl.

‘Swivelhead’ is a thoroughly modern and unusual take on the perennial question of the impossibility of morality in war. At first read this description might not mentally prepare you for an entertaining show. However, all the elements - acting, writing and set - make this a production filled with humour and grace.

This play undoubtedly does something interesting with an old subject matter. The script is a tapestry of 21st century concerns, with masculinity, technology and terrorism linked convincingly by the sharp writing of Jon Welch. Paddy (Ben Dyson) is the increasingly angry vessel of these concerns. Indeed, 'concerns' is the perfect word for the themes of this play - because they truly afflict all three main characters throughout the show. As the play progresses, these modern concerns increasingly seep in more and more, eventually overtaking the lighthearted banter.

Paddy is charismatic, likeable and amusing. He is also a sexist, aggressive bully who revels in making his inferior pilot uncomfortable. But you don’t really notice this at first. This is a testament to Dyson’s charm. In many plays about war, the gruff hero/ anti-hero such as this normally slips through the play without change or comment. In this particular one, however, his nature is brought to the fore very directly. As Paddy experiences the full force of his PTSD, he imagines the deferential Callum (Lewis Howard) turning on him. The sharp turnaround is clever, completely subverting the audience's expectations. As Paddy breaks down, the damage of his childhood becomes apparent. The moment of his owl transformation is incredibly ambiguous, but curiously beautiful. His sister Hattie (Juliet Mench) must be mentioned for simply excellent acting. She is filled with such convincing warmth, and it is clear why she is the only individual the icy pilot cares about.

Maybe it is a testament to the captivating acting, or maybe it was the intention all along, but the grand topics of drones vs. traditional warfare are submerged in the personal. Although I find this unexpected, it is fitting that a play about war focuses so intently upon the emotional repercussions upon the individual.

This is simply a story that grabs you and holds you by the sheer force of the acting and writing. In light of the ambitious topics tackled and absurdity encountered, this is no small feat.

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