Of Noel Coward, it was once said that he gave a rhyming dictionary to Lionel Bart, inscribed thus:
Don't let this aid to rhyming
Bitch your talent or your timing.
Which brings me to Swollen Tongues, a play by Kathleen Oliver written entirely in verse. And what a joyous affair it is, not merely because of its novelty value but also because it is simply one of the most charming and beautifully written pieces of theatre I have had the pleasure of seeing for many a long day.
Poetic or verse drama was very much the norm in early drama, a tradition crowned by the works of Shakespeare. By the time of the Restoration, comedies were increasingly being written in prose and verse was restricted largely to tragedies. In English theatre, poetic drama soon lost its lustre and finding a contemporary idiom for it didn't really bear fruit until the 1930s when Eliot and Auden began to use free verse in plays such as The Cocktail Party and Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not For Burning.
In language and theme, Swollen Tongues is a delightful mix of Congreve, Shakespeare and Moliere in its cunning take on Restoration comedy (with a bit of Charley's Aunt and Rhona Cameron thrown in for good measure). There is a Sapphic twist in the tail. The cross-dressing confusions, gender-bending and mistaken identities are focused around the liberally licentious behavior of lesbian love. And no, this is not a portentous exploration of guilt and morality, but very much a sensuous and light-hearted romp, at ease with itself and clothed in a veneer of ecstatic innocence.
Thomas (Vincent Penfold) and his sister Catherine (Lois Charlton) are poetry students under the tutelage of Dr Wise (Jan Hayden Rowles). They both fancy the tarty dressmaker Sonja (Kate McGoldrick). Sonja becomes orgasmic under the influence of poetic expressions of love and a competition is organised to judge the better poet. Catherine, however, is plagiarising her brother's work under the pseudonym, Overripe. Needless to say, tricks are discovered and backfired, and partners exchanged in the style of Dangerous Liaisons, in and out of drag, until true love, devoid of trickery and deceit, finds its way into each heart.
In her rhyming couplets, meter and internal rhymes, Oliver, with vivacious alacrity, displays a sureness of language that is truly enviable and uplifting. The performances in Jacqui Somerville's fast-moving production are never short of perfect, and, despite its risqué theme, do not descend into tastelessness. Penfold, as the put-upon man in the quartet is quite superb, never succumbing to the temptation of overacting in his account of the flowery, patronising and lovesick would-be poet. Diction and delivery throughout cannot be faulted
The obviously scarce resources of the Off The Cuff theatre company, which produces this piece, are well used in skimpy but effective design and costuming.
In summary, I cannot praise this wonderful slice of theatre too highly. Go out of your way to see it.
- Stephen Gilchrist (reviewed at Brighton's Dome Concert Hall