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The Swallowing Dark (Liverpool & London)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Canaan is also known as the Promised Land, which some might find as heavy symbolically, as say, having two characters play chess. Similarly, expectations may not be high about a drama apparently concerned purely with the bare bones of whether the eponymous character and his son should be sent back to Zimbabwe. It’s in the hands of his case worker, but as she grills him about his past life to try and extract the truth, and then he includes traditional tales with testimony, her own experiences gradually come to light.

The play soon begins to exert a relentless grip, a claustrophobic thriller which is at home in the Studio confines. Admittedly, the run down set, office and home, is hard to picture as the latter, but that may be the point. Plus a white backdrop inevitably means one thing, though video does have a role to play which is more of an enhancement than usual. And a shift of light, a twitch of colourful shawl and some birdsong - there we are in Africa.

A passionate and intense two hander, it would go nowhere without the outstanding leads: Alysson Ava-Brown and Wil Johnson; both Martha and Canaan, in their own way and with savage irony, are just trying to do their job. The acting has been firmly wedded to the eloquent writing, even if the final scene seems strangely downbeat, an almost happy ending, and almost incongruous, as if to distract us, yet again, from reality.

Give Lizzie Nunnery her due, she won’t be pigeonholed and has come up with an astonishing piece of storytelling, lightened with deft humour, and made memorable by some truly stunning scenes. You can but wonder what she will turn to next. Hopefully, there will not be too much of a wait.

-Carole Baldock


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