Within seconds of the lights going up at the Turbine Theatre, the audience were laughing, and thus the level of engagement was set for the entire show. Andrew Lancel takes to the stage as Dave Titswell, a gay, slightly beige, schoolteacher at the Ringo Star Community College, commanding the space in a way Dave never could.
It’s 1997 and our protagonist is a Mr Average; not going anywhere in his career, openly gay but with no relationships to speak of except with his cat and his co-workers. His acerbic sense of humour is hugely entertaining and bitchy, whilst his self-aggrandising boasting only scales the heights of pettiness. However, a fragile vulnerability is soon exposed: it becomes clear that beneath this superficial self-confidence, to avoid disappointment he must make himself believe that his mediocre, stagnant life is the one he has chosen. We all know a Dave – someone who is flawed yet still likeable for it. But when a misunderstanding causes him to become smitten by a co-worker during a trip to the Lakes, things go awry and he risks going downhill from there.
Lancel is magnificent, vividly conjuring up dynamic images of events through a focused and assured performance, impressively inhabiting the character. Aided by an incisive, hilarious script from Jonathan Harvey, he enthrals the audience with an hour-long monologue. His delivery is laugh out loud funny – so much so that your face will ache, yet at times it is also laced with pathos. The style of the script is almost Talking Heads; a little Alan Bennett in tone as the story unfolds, but given additional vitality through seamless direction from Noreen Kershaw. We share Dave’s world closely as he moves from stories of school life to almost confessional incidences of misunderstanding and disappointment; we really get to see the man, with all his imperfections.
A selection of fabulous, upbeat songs divide the segments and add background to Dave’s world: ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ didn’t really pan out for New Labour, did it? Other details help make his character so very real: the top of the range Fiat Panda (an oxymoron, surely?) that speaks volumes about his life choices, the 86 bus to Garston that places him in ‘middle’ Liverpool, so very average; and his dorky specs and casual clothing in drab shades of brown, made conservatively formal with a blue floral tie.
The script quietly raises some interesting points about the school system. There’s talk of budget cuts and fewer school dinners. Dave claims to be streetwise: down with the kids, and ironically, he probably is. Although somewhat inept, he is the only pastoral care for some very dodgy students, who would have no support whatsoever without people like him. This is the terrain of the desperate. Although somewhat laughable, Dave probably really understands what it is to be undervalued, can empathise with the pupils and thus has value in his role.
While the story is, for the most part, clearly sketched throughout, the ending seems to come about quite abruptly, leaving some ambiguity as to what would happen next. It was an ending that felt a little unsettling as the curtain closed. That aside, this creative team is a superb capsule of talent that has devised an all-round excellent night out you shouldn’t miss. The show sold out in earlier runs, so get your tickets while you can.
Written by: Jonathan Harvey
Directed by: Noreen Kershaw
Produced by: Bill Elms
Swan Song plays at The Turbine Theatre until 4 December. Further information and booking via the below link.
You can also read our recent interview with Andrew Lancel here