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Heart-Wrenchingly Human, Yet Ambiguously Aquatic: A Review of ‘Swallowing the Whale’

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Leeds chapter.

Days after seeing ‘Swallowing the Whale’, I am still astonished by the stunning portrayal of love, friendship, queerness, coming-of-age and innocence that I have witnessed. The show was put on by students at the University of Leeds and shown at the stage@leeds. The audience was brought to tears as we watched Marlowe (played by Hannah Whiteway and Cam Griffiths), a sensitive and loveable lead, experience the confusion and chaos of self-discovery through their friendship with the bubbly and extroverted April (Lucy Yellow). This friendship was complicated further by Marlowe’s confident yet troubled love interest, Levi (Billy West). 

I want to thank the production team and Her Campus for inviting me to watch and review this play, although I clearly was not quite clued in on what I was getting myself into. How on earth am I meant to do this production justice with nothing but words on a page? 

Where to start but with the genius writing and direction from Andie Curno. Making clever and artistic decisions throughout, Curno has written a story unlike any other and staged it to perfection. A key element of the play was Curno’s choice to use two actors to represent Marlowe. This directorial choice captured the lived experience of an introverted teenager who deals with a chaotic, internal monologue. I loved that the performers were not restricted to either role, but instead constantly swapped positions between the internal and external. Whiteway and Griffiths worked excellently together to portray this with fluidity, meaning it never felt disjointed or difficult for the audience to follow. Both actors switched from the loud and rushed interior to the shy and reserved exterior of Marlowe. Their unity on stage was undeniable as they collectively brought these two halves together to form an incredible character. 

One of the primary themes explored in the play was the exploration of first loves and sexuality. Lucy Yellow portrayed April, Marlowe’s childhood best friend and soulmate alongside Billy West who played the part of Levi, Marlowe’s first love. Both characters were presented as tools to help Marlowe on their journey of self-discovery. However, April and Levi were afforded their own complex characteristics which brought up additional themes that resonated with the audience. Yellow portrayed April’s bubbly nature and childish curiosity with ease, serving as a natural juxtaposition that emphasised Marlowe’s awkwardness and insecurity. Curno also incorporated some slightly darker elements to April’s character. Her jealousy and selfishness came into play during Marlowe’s romance with Levi, brought on by her difficult situation at home: an absent father and suggested alcoholic mother. Yellow conveyed the complexity behind this character beautifully and displayed April’s love for Marlowe as an escape from her struggles. She also rocked some of the most stunningly colourful costumes in the play thanks to the creative decisions of producers Turgoose and Cregor.

To contrast April, Curno created the mature love interest, Levi, who also carried trauma and emotional baggage. West plays this character with confidence, while still maintaining the awkwardness and novelty of teenage romance. West wonderfully portrayed a character who masked trauma with a cool and confident exterior. This brought a certain degree of vulnerability to his character as Levi and Marlowe’s relationship grew. 

I would also like to draw attention to the stunning set design and lighting choices made by the production team. The whale hanging above the stage is rarely acknowledged by the characters but represents the ever-present troubles that hang over us, inevitably having to be faced, or ‘swallowed’ as it were. The choice of the in-the-round staging fits the story beautifully and makes the audience feel involved in a narrative that many could relate to. The directors, Curno and Davis, and the performers made use of the space brilliantly, never isolating any side of the audience. This can often be a challenge with this staging choice, so the directors and performers should be commended on their skilful execution. Equally the lighting design, operated by Kate Matthews, was stunning. This is especially evident on the occasions where the stage was washed with a soft blue light, giving the impression of being underwater to go along with the whale theme. 

All members of the production team, performers and backstage deserve enormous praise for what they have delivered in this play. From the writing to the acting and staging, it was hard to believe I was not watching a professional production. The performance was heart-wrenching at times, but also incorporated elements of comedic relief. The contrast of tones sent the audience on an emotional rollercoaster of tears and laughter throughout. I am sure all audience members will agree that it was a privilege to have seen the debut production of ‘Swallowing the Whale’. I have no doubt this will not be the last time this play sees the stage. 

Make sure to check out Open Theatre soc’s Instagram page @opentheatresoc to catch upcoming plays and performances!

Written by: Erin Latham

Edited by: Grace Jennings

Hey! I'm Erin, I love musical theatre, TikTok and cheesy chips and gravy. I study PPE at Leeds and I'm so excited to get involved.