Monday 26 February 2018

Theatre: In the mood for dancing and romancing

'Swing's' cast of two set out to capture the intensity of finding someone 'you fancy the pants off'.

Janet Moran and Steve Blount in 'Swing'
Janet Moran and Steve Blount in 'Swing'

Maggie Armstrong

Irish people don't move their hips, right? Wrong, ever since Swing, a play about dance lessons, hit the big time. The 60-minute show opens this Monday in the Peacock for the Dublin Dance Festival before touring the country.

Swing was a little sensation in Paris and New York, where it got into critics' picks in the New York Times earlier this month.

The curious thing is, so little happens in the play. It was written by four people and is acted by only two. Steve Blount and Janet Moran flit between multiple roles, mainly playing two lovelorn characters.

They are Joe (50), a separated mature student who has been through "a few very dark years", and May (40), a self-effacing amateur artist who is "more of the céilí type". Joe is there to move on from his pain, May is there out of boredom. They dance, flirt and make us laugh. That's the play.

But Swing has touched a chord, and one reason for its success is that the actors can really dance.

Steve, who is rough-hewn and built like a wrestler, is surprisingly nimble-footed, while Janet is swift and lovely in a strawberry-print 1950s dress. They are not a couple, but their chemistry is not all theatre either.

The actors met at a house party about 12 years ago (in Pauline McLynn's, incidentally). Steve picked Janet out of the crowd and danced her around the room for "the most exhilarating three minutes of her life", as she told director Peter Daly, who said: "Janet thought there was something beautiful about it. She just felt there was a show then."

Talking from Manhattan, where the play ran Off Broadway, Peter explained how all four writers (including him and Gavin Kostick) wanted to capture something like the intensity of finding someone "you fancy the pants off".

"You know in life you meet someone and there's the spark – it's someone who makes you laugh straight away, and who you make laugh straight away," he said. "All of a sudden you find you're much wittier than you ever were before. So we tried to get this quality between May and Joe." This could make for a trite little play. But the rock step, the triple step, the Charleston and the shim-shams make it both an engaging spectacle and a story about learning on a very deep level.

Thrown into the whirl is a discussion of male supremacy, as May stamps her feet and objects to Joe leading. "Dancing was a much more articulate way of expressing the story than if we had tried to put it into dialogue," said Peter. "You're forced together physically in a way we in Ireland don't tend to do. In some of the dances, you are pressed in closer to each other."

The actors took swing classes around Dublin to help them write the play. "Janet also suspected that there was this rich tapestry of people that go to these classes, some half bonkers," said Peter. "You can't help but observe what's going on. We'd never want to be disrespectful of that world, because it takes huge courage to go along to something like that".

Consider the world of internet dating and this love story seems nostalgic – all flouncy dress and rock 'n' roll tunes, yet possible. There is a fumbling innocence to the dance and a maturity to learning steps as the characters do, in their second or third flushes of youth and, as Peter said, "making peace with their past".

Swing's success so far must be to do with the transformative power of dance, Peter believes.

"You've got all these little slices of humanity in there," he said. "At the end of the day, what every single person has in common is that we're all trying to make the most of this life that we've been given."

Another play that crosses forms, this one into singing, is Stewart Roche's Variance. It is about a mother on the edge and is now running in Theatre Upstairs on Eden Quay. Book via email at bookings@theatreupstairs.ie.

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