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Swallowing The Whale: Queer Life, Longing, and Love

Photo credits: Abby Swain.


Before seeing Swallowing the Whale I had little idea of what to expect. I knew the play would have queer themes – as stated in writer-director’s Andie Curno’s note – but I didn’t realise quite how much it would resonate and enthral me. The play is the journey of an individual and their experiences, weaving through themes of “friendship, love, self-love and self-expression” at its own pace. With many queer works in mass media relying on shock value, struggle and trauma, Swallowing The Whale is a refreshing and welcome coming-of-age story that explores the power and beauty of individuals’ tales without screaming and shouting. It is a strong enough story to stand tall on its own, valiant and real. Just by living our lives we all have a story to tell. Swallowing The Whale’s story just happens to have queerness pumping through its veins – and that is beautiful.


As we arrived at the Stage One theatre, soft, ambient music and lighting combined with relaxed seating – arranged in the round formation – that ranged from sofas with colourful throws to beanbags, creating an immersive, intimate and dreamy environment. As I settled into a beanbag and gazed up, I was immediately in awe of the skeletal whale’s looming presence that hung above the stage (designed by Saffy Wehren). Further initial set design consisted of whale-related pages of poetry spread in a square in a faux-barrier that separated the audience from the stage.


The cast below the whale skeleton.


As the lights dimmed, each character entered the stage from separate corners to the sounds of whales calling. They examined illuminated bulbs in each corner before beginning to recite overlapping waves of poetry ending in a cacophony of repeating the word “hopeless” until it seemed to echo and bounce around the room. The play then truly began, and we started our journey of following Marlowe through the memories that underscored their adolescence.


From their first meeting under the blue whale on a school trip, it’s clear that April and Marlowe’s lives are uniquely intertwined and bound with interlocking memories, hopes and dreams. Direction from Curno (with Ginny Davis assisting and Grace Marsh shadowing) creates a story with moving synergy: still in the right moments and high octane in others. Their direction enables the tensions of the unsaid to build throughout the play until they finally must break free, feelings and forces have become too strong for Marlowe’s sail and they can no longer navigate April’s storm smoothly. This momentum builds wonderfully throughout the play without needing to compromise the moments of beauty and softness that characterise Swallowing The Whale’s phantasmagorical nature.


What truly made Swallowing The Whale a rounded success was its use of set and props. Soft fabrics exploded out of the hard corners of the stage to give life to scenes, including a particularly effective river that burst out of a filing cabinet. To me, this perfectly mirrored how Curno’s story eased out soft and malleable moments from life’s hard boundaries. The use of ribbons linked all characters and props within their own world, from shoelaces to buttonhole bows, and the use of fabrics both within the show and spilling out into the audience’s seating created a fabric cocoon of safety from which we could survey and yet also be a part of the journey. Producers Ellery Turgoose and assistant producer Amy Cregor (shadowed by Shannon Wu) should be very proud of their work. Finally, projections both of an art piece and of a young boy on a whaling trip (as later discussed by Levi in his own memories) provide emotional and encompassing additions to the story.



Hannah Whiteway’s and Cam Griffiths’ portrayals of Marlowe I & II (photographed above) seamlessly shift between each Marlowe narrating or physically experiencing the moment. The changes are notably harmonious and natural, and I soon found myself almost unaware of the two actors interchanging. Both the flow and message of the play only benefited from this stylistic choice. I especially appreciated how the choice to cast Marlowe in this way illuminated how futile labels can be, particularly within the context of a coming-of-age story where characters are discovering themselves, because it allowed the audience to approach the story with no preconceived conceptions, something that we may do implicitly in today’s society. Whiteway and Griffiths should both be commended for their continuous presence on stage throughout both acts and consistently delivering each line of writer Curno’s melodious poetry and prose with magnetising presence. They both held the stage fantastically and provoked emotional and reflective responses with their endearing portrayals of Marlowe through a spectrum of emotion from illuminating joy to stricken upset.



Lucy Yellow’s April (above) was an enigma, from the sweet nine-year-old ogling the blue whale called Hope or spitting out a stolen marmite sandwich, all the way to the teen navigating the complexities of her relationship with Marlowe, the one constant in her tumultuous life; Yellow’s range is a testament to her strength as an actor. She truly inhabited April in all stages of her life. Throughout, it's clear that April is a force of nature, and Yellow’s passionate facials and physicality illustrate this perfectly as she skips across the stage or grasps for Marlowe. The self-assured confidence she presented perfectly encapsulated how someone in your life can be a spellbinding everything, that Marlowe feels compelled to be close to and experience life with.


Though appearing on the stage later in the play and for considerably less time than the other three cast members, Billy West’s charming and relaxed Levi provides a moment for Marlowe to breathe away from April’s whirlwind. As a quasi love interest (honestly within Swallowing The Whale’s narrative nature I would prefer to refer to them as “life interests”), Levi is a direct contrast to April. West gives Levi an endearing and insightful nature that, through their conversations at a sixth-form house party, reveal a different path for Marlowe and aspects of themselves that do not have to be interlocked with April. In this way he provides a vital stepping stone for Marlowe in accepting and embracing who they are.


Marlowe and Levi.


Overall, it is evident that Swallowing The Whale’s exploration of Marlowe’s life has queerness at its core. Nothing is explicit as we travel through the dreamscape of Marlowe’s memories and yet we are totally enraptured by the story. I am especially impressed that such a poignant and well-crafted story is created fully from conception to delivery by students. We truly are the voice of the future and Swallowing the Whale emphasised how we, as the youths of today, must take control of our own queer narratives and show that our stories can be "beautiful, quiet, and slow". We are not just side characters, or shocking plot twists or traumatic upbringings. We are real people.


Swallowing The Whale ran from 2nd – 4th March 2023. Open Theatre’s next show, A Hedgehog’s Dilemma opens Thursday 16th March and runs till Saturday with tickets available here.



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