The Swallowing Dark

The Swallowing Dark by Lizzie Nunnery is a psychological thriller that combines devastating power with the telling of a good story.

Canaan and his son have come a long way to escape the horrors of Zimbabwe under Mugabe. But when Martha asks him to revisit his darkest memories, he’s forced to fight for their lives a second time. Martha needs only an honest tale, but are either of them who they seem, and is the truth ever a simple story?

**** Guardian

Lizzie Nunnery’s debut play Intemperance was a bold, Ibsenite epic set in 19th-century Liverpool, which suggested that this was a major talent destined for bigger stages. Instead, she has opted for a smaller one for her return – the tiny Playhouse studio, which has reopened as an outlet for new work while the Everyman undergoes a two-year redevelopment.

Political refugee Canaan has fled Zimbabwe for Toxteth with his nine-year-old son. Now his permission to remain in the country is under review, and a young social worker named Martha appointed to oversee the case. Why has he received a letter informing him that his deadline for reapplication has expired, but no notification that such an application had to be made? “Not our policy,” she tells him.

Canaan, who tends to talk in parables, relates a traditional story about a young woman who bakes birds in a pie, only for them to come bursting out through her stomach.

Nunnery’s play seems equally likely to explode with the force of its internal contradictions. It is suggested that Canaan, a torture victim, may have tortured others himself; while Martha’s increasing sympathy and desire to help is tempered by the slippery inconsistencies of her subject’s narrative.

Paul Robinson’s production switches seamlessly from a bald interview room to the burning African plain, while the performances take on an almost primal intensity. Wil Johnson’s Canaan likens himself to a caged beast; Allyson Ava-Brown’s Martha is increasingly consumed with impotent rage at the inadequacies of a system that requires “every note to be dated, recorded and legislated for by politicians trying to quell the panic of the Daily fucking Mail”.

One still suspects that Nunnery has larger plays bubbling up inside her. Yet her terse, interrogative style makes this closeted space in the Playhouse’s eaves feel more like an incident room than an auditorium.


Paul Robinson


Liverpool Playhouse


Wil Johnson
Allyson Ava-Brown