Swan Song

Review: Swan Song

Review: Swan Song

Swan Song at The Turbine Theatre –  “Andrew Lancel’s performance is simultaneously gripping and multi-layered”…


The more I think about Swan Song, the better it gets. It’s one of these shows that won’t have you weeping out loud in the audience or shivering with excitement before every scene – but it eats through your brain like acid eats through metal.  

First staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1997 – and extremely topical at the time – Swan Song is a brainchild of Jonathan Harvey, the man behind Beautiful Thing and Gimme Gimme Gimme.  Admittedly, for a show that’s been in the works for such a long time, it still retains a tiny bit of fringe feel (and strangely but sadly, also its topicality). It feels fresh yet finished; original yet decidedly not amateur. 

Advertised as a “bittersweet comedy”, Swan Song is far more bitter than sweet, though it definitely is a comedy. Dave Titswell, a middle-aged gay English teacher, is struggling with the fast though almost imperceptibly approaching radical changes in the political and education landscape, as well as with the unbearable stagnation of his own life. He has a crush, he has friends, he has ex-boyfriends.  And he is a man seemingly blind to whole areas of his own heart, or at least a man who attempts to be blind to them. But behind his attention to pastoral care and gallows humour, Dave hides his true self: that of an ageing, lonely, helpless man. 

The play doesn’t always take the easy course, particularly as Andrew Lancel’s performance is simultaneously gripping and multi-layered: he alternates between averting from and exposing his vulnerability. His teaching philosophy has, seemingly, more in common with acting than education, as he carefully attempts to hide his true self from his students and colleagues alike. He is obscenely rude (and somewhat misogynistic) towards those who are good to him, and far too forgiving towards those who treat him badly. So-very-Jonathan-Harvey might say those who watched Gimme Gimme Gimme, though interestingly, Dave Titswell originates as Di Titswell, and was first played by Rebecca Front.  

Curiously, none of the plot’s events actually impels Dave to any decisions. His waspish wordiness only highlights his internal decrepitude, so very visible at the end of the play. There are hardly any tears in the story, hardly any complaints or agonies – and yet the agony of helplessness is what underlines the very soul of Swan Song. 

Jonathan Harvey is swift with his pen and obviously not devoid of satiric gifts, and direction by BAFTA award-winning director Noreen Kershaw is the model of restrained yet extremely thought-through minimalism. The decision to punctuate the scenes with campy disco music is highly effective in that it pointedly highlights the mask Dave keeps on wearing and his own weariness with it.  

There are flaws. The first act could possibly be slightly shorter. The finale could be a tiny bit longer. But overall, it’s a brilliant, poignant show. And it makes for a pleasant, somewhat middlebrow evening – as one can expect from Turbine Theatre.