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The Swell review – a gasp-inducing love-triangle mystery | Theatre

The wonder of Isley Lynn’s gorgeous play about the love between three women is in its connections. In a time-hopping narrative spanning 28 years, we meet Bel, Annie and Flo at two different points during their changing intimate relationship, with different actors playing the older and younger versions of each character. The past and present bleed together fluidly and beautifully as The Swell expands into a complicated drawing of modern queer love across the decades.

Sophie Ward (top) and Shuna Snow in The Swell.
Entirely lifelike … Sophie Ward (top) and Shuna Snow in The Swell. Photograph: Ali Wright

In the earlier story Bel and Annie are engaged after a whirlwind romance but when Annie’s childhood friend Flo – a volcano of fun, trouble and life – comes to visit, the ease of their new bond is uprooted. In the later thread, Flo and Bel live in an isolated home, away from everything and everyone else. But how did they get there? From the start we’re eager to know, but Lynn keeps the mystery of these adjoining stories devilishly held back, until suddenly the secrets of The Swell explode.

In a poetic production directed by Hannah Hauer-King, the play – shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Playwriting in 2020 – becomes dreamlike. Ghostly live music composed by Nicola T Chang links scenes, and the actors watch their counterparts’ sections from the sidelines. The shadows of yesterday linger, tentatively, within the frames of the Orange Tree’s circular stage. Flo and Bel’s first nervous step into romance plays out silently behind conversations of the future. The memory of it stains like a bruise.

When a big reveal finally comes, it sends gasps through the audience. Until then, it is Lynn’s intricate stitching of three full, complex women that steer this epic. The six-strong cast all fit perfectly into the skins of their roles and work effortlessly as one ensemble. But, as the mature Bel, Sophie Ward stands out. Full of angst and years of difficulty, her performance is entirely lifelike. What a joy it is to see this female-led production flourish. Built with tangled emotions, subtlety and surprise, it is quite the feat.

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