Stef Smith's mostly gorgeous play has an untenably daft ending
Perhaps a better name for Stef Smith’s new play would be ‘Pelican’, as that might prepare you better for the weird turn of events that sees Orla O’Loughlin’s otherwise fine production lob itself off the deep end in the last 15 minutes or so.
‘Swallow’ follows three women, each of them feeling rejected by the world. Fiery Rebecca (Anita Vettesse) has fallen to pieces after discovering her ex-husband has met somebody else, becoming a partial recluse after scarring her face in a boozy accident. Biologically female but choosing to live as a man, Sam (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) also keeps society at arm’s length – estranged from his family, working nights. And Rebecca’s upstairs neighbour Anna (Emily Wachter) is a recluse in the most extreme sense: she would appear to be an agoraphobic, shunning solid food, spending her time watching nature documentaries and creating weird craft ‘projects’ with an avian theme
They’re splendid, sensitive – in Vettesse and Wachter’s cases, funny – performances. And the play’s allure deepens as they begin to interact, as Sam and Rebecca meet by chance and strike up a tender, painfully fragile relationship, while Anna’s isolation is challenged by Rebecca’s (admittedly somewhat half-hearted) attempts to help.
You can pretty much guess how Sam and Rebecca's romance works out, but a certain predictability doesn't matter when the characters are so interesting and when we care about the delicate thing that has sprung up between them. But Anna is a different case. I’m afraid I'm going to spoiler the hell out of the ending, but basically Anna pulls herself together with the help of a magical pelican she has probably hallucinated.
It is introduced a lot more sensitively than all that, a figment of her cracked, crumbling subconscious. But nonetheless it does sort her out, with Smith’s suggestion apparently either that after two years beyond all help Anna has suddenly found the strength inside herself to banish her problems, or else she has effectively been cured by the magic of Sam and Rebecca’s happiness (or option three, there really was a magic pelican). I don’t begrudge a cheery end, but after such a beautifully crafted first hour, the final nosedive into lumbering sentimentalism is a surprise and a disappointment.