REVIEW: Elf Lyons: Swan (Soho Theatre) ★★★★★

Swan, by Elf Lyons, is a one-woman stand-up comedy show. Lyons takes Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, deconstructs it, and tells her own version of the story, subverting cliches and challenging assumptions as she goes.

Ballet is widely considered one of the most elitist art forms. The tickets are often expensive and the narrative can be hard to follow if you’re not ‘in the know’. Lyons’ version combines all of the most accessible art forms – puppetry, song, clowning, mime and stand-up comedy – into a brilliant alternative narrative. Her show is conducted, hilariously, in Franglais, that is – mostly in French but using English for the important stuff.

She uses this narrative to raise some pressing – but surprising – questions about the way men and women relate to each other. She takes a litany of fairytale tropes – the coy girl, the temptress, the loving but ultimately unfaithful guy, and the all-important quest for ‘the one’ – and sends them up. In Lyons’ affectionate take-down of this enduringly popular story, heteronormativity is out and freedom is in. Women are empowered, everything is fun, and heterosexuality and monogamy are never assumed.

Swan is, first and foremost, a highly entertaining show. The pacing is incredibly impressive – there is not a single low-energy moment in the whole hour and the laughs don’t tail off once. Lyons is entirely at ease with her audience. We’re in the palm of her hand from the off. She’s gentle too, which adds to the inclusive atmosphere; she’s always careful to take us with her.

Lyons is a versatile and highly trained performer, and it shows in Swan. It’s an ambitious show in many ways, but her delivery is impeccable. The physical elements of the show – the mime, puppetry and clowning – are genius, and play very well with her outlandish costume and props. She’s clearly also a wordsmith; there is plenty of blink-and-you-miss-it trickery. Whatever you’re into, there’s some of it in Swan.

We should all be talking about the things Lyons talks about in Swan, and I wish more artists had her level of care for the audience. Go for the rofls; stay for the revelations.

Reviewed by Annabel Mellor