Review: Scenes for Survival - Three Billion Swipes, National Theatre of Scotland

The transient nature of Three Billion Swipes really helps to it reflect some of its key themes.

Coming in at only eight minutes, we barely have the time to get to know the two characters in this piece (David Rankine and Kirsty Findlay) before they are ripped away from us. Seeing as this is a play about dating apps, and the fleeting, occasionally overwhelming quality of them, this ephemerality is fitting. 

Within the brevity, there is some strong character work here – as two vastly different personalities are established and immediately thrown together for a playful, and at times cringe-worthy, date.

We meet a nervous man to start with (Rankine), fretting over his background for the approaching virtual date. He’s moving things around, lighting a candle and then immediately extinguishing it. His date is a woman (Findlay), sweating in her gym wear after just finishing her workout, a book next to her called ‘Overcoming Perfectionism’. This is her first date of five tonight; it’s his first and only date on this app so far. 

These characters do feel a little one-dimensional. We learn a fair bit about them, but it seems to be a feedback loop confirming what we already know. He’s romantic, but hapless – still living with his mother, and recovering from a cheating ex-partner. She’s a realist, fiercely driven and busy at work (unclear what), who is trying to find the best partner by meeting as many people as possible, desperately trying to beat the odds of finding ‘the one’ – if that exists.

This lack of definition does fit the paradigm of dating apps, of course. They force us into showing distilled versions of ourselves. Tinder, Bumble, Hinge profiles are effectively sales-pitches, advertising yourself to others, while you also skip through hundreds of other profiles to see who appeals to you. 

But for a lot of people, this is the norm now. The genesis of this story and its title is the fact that Tinder recorded three billion swipes on 29 March, the most ever in a single day. Obviously, the date of that is relevant – it illustrates a heightening of action in an immediate reaction to lockdown and isolation in some countries, but I’m not entirely sure Three Billion Swipes has the room or time to properly explore this. 

The scene does endearingly show the awkwardness that’s involved in using dating apps, at least for those looking for serious relationships.  But that might be part of the problem – people are used to dating apps in 2020, and all the benefits and issues associated with them. Concepts like swiping, filters, and ghosting are, for better or worse, part of a public consciousness now.

Three Billion Swipes does not really investigate how much that is going to change within the lockdown. It hints at how a need for connection might well be increased because of the pandemic, but spends more time focusing on the traditional elements of dating with apps – the hoping, the waiting, the loneliness, the barrage of matches or the rare joy in finding one. All this is effortlessly conveyed in the script by Corinne Salisbury, but it doesn’t quite come together to say anything new. Those issues existed before coronavirus; how will they develop now?

Despite this though, it’s a sweet story with genuinely funny moments. Both actors give earnest performances without overstepping the mark and coming off as mawkish. But as a short piece it hovers a little too much on the surface and may be using themes and experiences that are so familiar to many of us that they need a longer piece to be explored properly. 

Three Billion Swipes is streaming now on the National Theatre of Scotland’s website.