Following on from the success of “Big Boys”, the latest new work from Tom Foreman is “Swell” – a climate-conscious drama based on real events which follows siblings in a town decommissioned due to rising sea levels. The play runs at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre from 8-12 February, so I caught up with Tom (who is both writer and director) to see what awaits audiences this week…
Swell looks at the human cost of climate change – perhaps one of the more overlooked elements in terms of land being abandoned despite it being populated by communities. What drew you to this story?
I happened upon this story on Twitter by chance during the first lockdown. For those who don’t know, Swell is based on the real events of Fairbourne in Wales, where in 2014 residents found out via the evening news that their town was set to be ‘decommissioned’ by 2054 and returned to the sea. The reason given was that with predicted sea level rise, the risk to the town would be unmanageable, and the restoration of a tidal salt marsh to the area would help to buffer against future flooding on in-land areas.
What drew me to it especially was the human implications of it all: the hundreds of homes, businesses, future plans and memories suddenly pulled out from under their feet. What became quite clear to me too is the precedent it sets, and that what first appears to be a significant but localised sacrifice will surely soon become a familiar tragedy repeated over and over across our coastal borders. So for me, the heart of this story is the residents themselves, and the butterfly effect that climate change is having on everyday lives.
Tell me a little bit about the process behind this work – was it quite research-heavy in terms of subject matter?
Absolutely. I would’ve loved to have visited Fairbourne in the development stage, but Covid restrictions at the time meant that that was impossible. Fortunately however, at the time my second-year exams at university had been cancelled and I suddenly found myself with a huge amount of free time. I used it researching as much as I possibly could about Fairbourne and coastal management. Half my family are from Whitstable in Kent too, and so I also found myself really drawn into researching coastal communities in general, re-connecting somewhat with that heritage.
Since it’s such a sensitive topic I wanted to be as responsible as I could be in writing about it, and that meant learning far more about it than I’d ever need to portray on stage. Importantly though, that knowledge is really all background. The story of Swell is really the human one, with the decommissioning of the town acting as the trigger of the plot, rather than the focus. So whilst I felt I owed it to the story to understand it all in-depth, the characters in Swell don’t necessarily, and so writing it was a balancing act of only peppering in the information that the characters would really have to hand.
And Swell follows siblings coming to terms with the extraordinary life-changing events looming – is there a reason you chose to look at a brother/sister dynamic at the heart of this piece?
I genuinely think that siblinghood is the most complicated relationship we have. For those of us who have siblings, we all have such unique and different experiences, but the one thing they all have in common is that they are complicated. Siblings – or indeed the lack thereof – shape us in powerful ways that I think most people are unconscious to, but that have profound effects on us regardless. I’ve found over time that the style of writing I’ve developed tends to follow one or two relationships really closely and explore it through different events as I think that provides an opportunity to really explore the human condition.
I think that siblinghood really lent itself to the plot as the dynamics of the relationship share so much with the themes of home and community which are central to the show. It’s been fascinating exploring it with the actors and I hope it will be refreshing to audiences to see a brother-sister relationship as the central focus of a piece.
What can audiences expect here in terms of style and genre – are we looking at a hard-hitting drama or something closer to a dark comedy?
I certainly wouldn’t say it’s a dark comedy, although I always try to add in a few moments of relief so that the drama doesn’t feel relentless. It’s a fast-paced piece. Time moves quickly throughout and the audience, like the characters, are swept through with it. We’ve created the whole community of Swell with just the three actors on stage, so it’s a very physical, very dynamic piece, complemented by some wonderful technical design by Gareth Morgan. In terms of a genre it would definitely be drama, but as I’ve said, that drama is born out of the relationships studied throughout.
You’re also heading back to the Lion and Unicorn Theatre with Swell, having previously had a successful run there with Big Boys. How does that particular, intimate space lend itself to a story like this?
I love fringe theatre spaces, and I adore the Lion and Unicorn. For me, the edge that fringe theatre has over larger productions is the intimacy with the audience. In a 500 seat theatre, there’s no way an actor can bring every individual into the fold, but suddenly when you have less than 100, the whole thing opens up and you can develop a very personal relationship between performer and punter. I always include that intimacy in my productions, and the Lion & Unicorn works particularly well for that with its thrust layout. It breaks the fourth wall even more because the actors have to make a bigger effort to build that relationship by addressing all sides, and in doing so that intimacy is elevated still. We didn’t actually get the thrust when we did Big Boys because Covid restrictions meant the capacity was reduced significantly, but it’s really exciting to be utilising the space in its entirety for Swell.
How have rehearsals been going? Has there been a moment which has stood out to you as a source of pride in terms of being both writer and director?
We had our technical rehearsal yesterday, and both myself and my co-director Connor Rowlett were blown away. I’ve been developing this piece since early 2020, and to see it finally all coming together was something special. All three actors – Annabelle Lewiston, Max Beken and Jayant Singh – have really taken on the challenge and developed beautifully nuanced and complex characters, and putting the amazing work they’ve done on top of the beautiful technical work by Gareth has been the cherry on top. I can’t wait for audiences to see what we’ve got for them.
And I know it’s not always a welcome question, particularly in this uncertain climate, but are you entertaining any ideas for what might come next that we should look out for?
For Swell, the Edinburgh Fringe is next. We’re currently in talks with different venues, and we’re going to take advantage of this run by seeing what worked and what might need further development. If it’s received well, I’d love to take it further and share it with as many audiences as will keep coming! Besides Swell, things are a little less certain. I’d love to work on some TV and film projects, but my heart is still firmly attached to fringe theatre, so I’m not sure. So really I can’t say for certain, but if you don’t get a chance to see Swell this time around, please do look out for us in Edinburgh!
Finally, as always, tell folk why they should come and see Swell…
I can’t recommend enough visiting Swell and meeting the community… before it’s too late.
So there you have! You can catch Swell at The Lion and Unicorn Theatre from 8-12 February 2022 and you can find your tickets here.