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Brighton Fringe 2016

Low Down

Sarah Mann adapts and directs this sparkling revival of Ionesco’s 1950 debut play at the Lantern Theatre, ACT Brighton. She also designs the set.


ACT Brighton at the Lantern Theatre have mounted a production of Ionesco’s first play from 1950, adapted and directed by Sarah Mann who also designed the set. From 1957 it’s run continually in France. A pity it doesn’t run here too, the touchstone of Absurdism.

It’s set in an England both Edwardian and 1950, a Rumanian-French grammar of British ritual strained through dotty English syntax. Ionesco learned it on the Assimil tape-recorder. So if you get a sense of Monty Python’s ‘My hovercraft is full of eels’ you know they’re rendering a hommage to Ionesco’s deconstruction of us as quasi-xenophobes; English shibboleths in phrase-books.

Mrs Smith recites a satisfied litany of a good meal, her husband harrumphs. They discuss Bobby Watson, fix his death after discussion and confuse themselves with a whole family named Bobby Watson. Into this suite of non-sequiturs arrive the Martins, admitted by maid Mary, who’s been hiding in the grandfather clock chiming seventeen. They’re late and seem not to know each other but discover amazing coincidences ending in the fact they share the same bed.

As they curl up to sleep, Mary informs the audience the daughter they think they share is in fact two girls. The Fire Brigade Chief – Mary’s lover – arrives putting out fireplaces around the city. After a contest at story-telling which Mary easily wins in a virtuosic scena – Fenia Giannopoulou’s nailing rendition dare one say it the soprano herself – the Fire-Chief exits alongside Mary who’s thrust out of the room. The remainder embark on a virtuoso display of non-consequential statements ever more frantic (‘When I was born I was fourteen years old….’ ‘I’m looking for a monophysite priest to marry our maid’….’ If I had answers, I’d be a politician.’). It’s then the Martins who end the play with the same lines as the Smiths began it.

Non-communication, a loop repeat renders the play eternal underlining Ionesco’s hapless portrayal of the human condition. With memory loss as harbinger of meaningless repeats it’s salutary Englishness was hit upon as the perfect vehicle.

Giannopoulou’s Mary is outstanding with the bravura mix of omniscient confiding and sullenness maid-roles embody. Her out-of-role coloratura displays bespeak a prima donna. The title’s muttered as an aside, misheard by the Fire Chief. Giannopoulou just happens to fit it in this production.

Sarah Widdas’s Mrs Smith strikes a pitch-perfect Absurdist rectitude for the part, played only faintly madder than the English themselves; she’s also seamstress/ASM. Trefor Levins’ Mr Martin has voice and presence though his Irishness slips and his long hair (for which I assume Irish identity was some rationale) might be shorn a little for the production. Levins has potential. Eliot Robinson’s Mr Smith is solidly realized with many lines. Julia Knight’s Mrs Martin and Ric Stewart’s Fire chief are perfectly competent – Knight convinced in her smaller role – though perhaps the Chief could touch the absurd gravitas of a civic official: more pomp than pump.

Mann’s production is smooth and pacey, her designs a little simulacra of English drawing-rooms with a wireless set, whilst Widdas’ costumes and make-up generally (pace long hair) looked straight out of Magritte looking straight back at us as the English, or indeed his own French subjects.

Perhaps only in Brighton could one find comments to left and right ‘I directed this twice …’ and discover oneself sitting in a room of Ionesco directors; or so it seemed. I expected them one by one to stand up claiming ‘I’m directing Ionesco’, ‘no, I’m directing Ionesco’ but being Brighton there was instead a cheery rhinoceros herding to the pub.

In the absence of much Ionesco, this has more than a solid recommendation with a couple of outstanding features mentioned above; even if you know it, it’s worth it for a sight of those.