Tuesday, November 28

Swan Song – Liverpool Theatre Festival

Award-winning writer Jonathan Harvey’s clever monologue was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival and Hampstead Theatre in 1997. Reimagined by Harvey for the Liverpool Theatre Festival, and under the direction of BAFTA award-winning director Noreen Kershaw, it stars Andrew Lancel as English teacher Dave Titswell in a world that is changing both inside and outside of his treasured classroom. Delivered over five segued acts, we humorously contemplate Dave’s lessons in life, garnered from his twenty five years in the teaching profession, as he is faced with the conundrum of whether he has now reached the end of the line or if a school trip to the Lakes will change things for the better. With liberal doses of good humour throughout, what we discover on the way as we navigate his overzealous attention to pastoral care and inclination for mispronunciation is a lonely old man, lost in an imagined bubble of his own making but who remains a wily old fox, closely holding the biggest life lesson of all to heart: survival.

The challenge for any actor with a celebrated career is to throw off the shackles of earlier characterisation and it is much to Lancel’s credit that from the moment he appears on stage, he is this misguided teacher, capturing every subtle nuance of the character from the off as he takes us on this merry journey whilst his consummate skill allows him to pause for the sirens of passing emergency vehicles and incorporate a barking dog into the routine. With this yet another collaboration with Kershaw, their obvious understanding and appreciation of the other guarantees we are served up a delight of a show.

Harvey’s dexterous writing works on a number of levels broadening its appeal to a wider audience, here intricately plumbing the character of a sexually and socially inept Dave to hint at a deeper and darker individual lurking beneath through recognisable and witty observations. If I have one comment it would be that having reimagined the piece for a male lead in Liverpool, it seems a shame not to have updated some of the references to reflect the current political landscape which would have added further pathos as the issues at the heart of teaching that Harvey will have drawn upon from his own experiences in the profession have never gone away and are unlikely ever to do so. This is a minor observation in a piece that is painstakingly crafted and superbly delivered.

Originally scheduled to open the Liverpool Theatre Festival, due to circumstances beyond any control it was moved to the end and it could not have been planned any better as it offered the perfect finale to this week-long spectacular. The organisers are to be commended for their professionalism throughout with social distancing measures safely implemented and managed through temperature checks and at-seat service for food and beverages in the delightful venue of St Luke’s Bombed Out Church.

Bill Elms Productions have given theatre a much-needed boost during difficult times by pulling together proven productions and in a short space of time adapting them to suit location and duration. It has been suggested that this will be the first of a regular annual outdoor festival, which is a great idea: the challenge in a city teeming with creativity will be what to include next time.

Reviewer: Mark Davoren

Reviewed: 20th September 2020

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★