The Playhouse Studio has held a huge place in the affections of those involved in the theatre for a very long time. It’s a place with a long history that has launched careers on and off stage; but for the past 15 years it has been closed to the public, although still used as a rehearsal space that has inspired and thrilled many who remembered it from the old days.
So, even if we’d never been in there before, the audience knew to approach The Swallowing Dark, the first production staged there for two decades, with a certain reverence. It’s clear that the show, a new work from Lizzie Nunnery, was chosen for a reason.
The studio may only seat 65, with chairs arranged in rows more akin to a church hall assembly than a theatre, but just one visit proved it does present theatre in a way unlike anywhere else, not only close up, but unexpectedly personal. It’s so small, once the production starts, if you have to nip out, they won’t let you back in. Fortunately, The Swallowing Dark had the audience glued to their seats.
The play is an intense, beautifully written two-hander that tells the tale of a Zimbabwean refugee in Toxteth (Wil Johnson) and his relationship with the caseworker tasked with assessing his claim (Allyson Ava-Brown). It was ideal for the space that contained it, a tight, absorbing and well-crafted tale.
On all levels, The Swallowing Dark was beautifully gauged. It knew when to whisper and when to shout. Subtle changes in light made all the difference to the stark setting, taking the audience from inner city Liverpool night to the flashback scenes in the African sun. Some wonderful projections from Knifedge bought a touch of magic to a deliberately soulless set.
The cherry on the cake was the two highly impressive performances from Ava-Brown and Johnson, as two characters struggling with the realisation their lives could never go back to more innocent times, whether personal tragedy occured thousands of miles away or two minutes from home.