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Brighton Year-Round 2022

Low Down

Directed by Joanna Read, Designer and Costumes Liz Cooke, Lighting Paul Anderson, Composer and Sound Jon Nicholls, Fight Director Philip d’Orléans, Casting Director Ginny Schiller. Assistant Director Emily Jane Kerr, Voice and Dialect Coach Judith Phillips.

Till April 23rd


This is one of the more curious plays I’ve seen at Theatre Royal. Success should be riven in its DNA like Blackpool Rock.

Tim Firth’s known for many things from Calendar Girls to Kinky Boots. Whilst he turned the former from screen (his essential medium) to theatre in 2008, with his early (1992) play Neville’s Island he managed the reverse; this comedy of team-building gone wrong made a successful film. Theatrically though Neville’s Island enjoys revivals, memorably at Chichester in 2014 with Adrian Edmondson.

So in regendering the four male characters in Sheila’s Island, Firth’s opening up a richly marbled seam of comedy: gentle but with unexpected flaws that gape. Calendar Girls shows him deft at portraying women in groups. Thus quartet too features women approaching middle age. Should be a smash.

So there’s much here that’s relatable. Don’t be put off from a good night out but don’t expect fireworks: those come from the Bonfire Night bangs and offshore flashes provided by lighting designer Paul Anderson in his big moment, not the storyline. Though there’s one twist. It’s a slow-burn play, and like sparklers the women light to attract rescue, it can fizzle out and leave them (and you) stranded. By the time you see it, it’ll have picked up speed, which it currently lacks.

Director Joanna Read seems to want us to take time to know the characters. Despite being more condensed than Neville’s Island, the dialogue can hang fire. You imagine this better at speed.

There should now naturally be less testosterone, more bonding than the original: perhaps more explicit emphasis on inner states gone awry, though that’s what Neville’s Island sketched in.

This might be the problem. Whilst Firth updates the play – google, satnav, smartphones all make their mark – he’s not entirely suggested the journey of all his characters. What’s daring and sensitive in 1992 – portrayals of male mental distress, suicide, long-term caring and even the group’s cognitive deterioration – falls pat here. Firth declares he’s ‘sharpened and speeded up the script’. It doesn’t feel speeded up: early touring days perhaps.

We need to trace the way four women interact and collapse or find something in themselves; as lack of food, cutting off from the world and cutting into themselves take their toll on this exercise-bonding quartet in the Lake District. And there is fun. Denise’s verbals and Sheila’s great ideas of e.g. flags, Julie’s OCD protectiveness (think one sausage) and touchiness over her husband are offset by Fay’s lurch fey-wards as she becomes (as lookout) a roosting bird. Then takes that to a new level.

Composer and sound designer Jon Nicholls provides mock-ominous chords, though is otherwise unobtrusive. Sound isn’t ideally balanced, insomuch as not everything the actors say is clear.

Judy Flynn’s warm and initially unfocused team leader Sheila (who finally pronounces it’s her island, in self-knowing irony) has led her team to the wrong place, unlike two other rival teams. She’s clear-headed about herself and others though, and despite her lack of thoroughness – damnable in two other characters’ eyes – shows empathy and concern, as well as cracking the carapace of reasonable Sheila: a sharp knowing she turns on her tormenter.

Abigail Thaw’s Denise, 28 years in clawing up to middle management (there’s a reason), unerringly puts her finger on the throat of every problem and squeezes it. Doesn’t mean she’s not right, as when she points out Sheila’s navigational incompetence. Though it’s Denise’s backpack of food that’s been lost. Thaw wisecracks Denise through seething one-liners, though clever embittered Denise isn’t given growing points, that moment of self-revelation at least two other characters undergo. Thaw enjoys Denise’s energy though, and pushes pace as much as her character’s allowed.

Sara Crowe plays the most distrait character, called, as you’d expect, Fay. After a breakdown ‘holiday’ of 13 months Fay’s back but packed religion with her too, to the disgust of some.  Crowe relishes the chance to make Fay mad north-north west in a way: frail and a bit frightening in turn. There’s a dark, even ruthless side to this gentle ornithologist the others don’t know how to read: and when they do, they’re wrong. Firth here scores a coup in Fay’s final reveal. When the others fear the worst though, it seems inconceivable they don’t act at once.

The richest character is Rina Fatania’s Cheshire-bred Julie. Played here as hyper-organised in small things, with an obsession suggesting neuro-diversity, Fatania delights in giving us both the emphatic fact-checker and fatuous obsessive sometimes simultaneously. As well as Julie’s selfish streak. Though Denise can bully her initially, Julie’s dangerous and the others know it’s not just that she’s brought a large knife that goes a journey of its own. Julie’s a kick-boxer of the soul.

What’s currently lacking is the actors’ flickering joy in their individual parts sparking across to crisp as an ensemble; one bouncing off each other, as if lives depended on it. The marooned quartet are under pressure; comedy takes care of itself.

Liz Cooke’s costumes show a bewildering gallimaufry of changes – Firth’s changing scene at the start shows Cooke to advantage but slows the work down. You do wonder where four hard hats emerge from: Julie’s OCD rucksack is almost an Aladdin’s cave but… It’s not Cooke’s fault. Her touring design is lightweight though. A downstage slice of mud and small runnel is supported by upstage leafless trees crafted in two moving sections; the branches evocatively webbed in fibreglass to fog starkness with distance. There’s a simple screen changing skies. It’s effective though minimal and this production needs more grounding. Distinguished fight director Philip d’Orléans (often at the Globe) makes the dramatic confrontations palpably sharp and sudden.

It’s a play you wish well – like many its premiere was postponed from 2020. There is as yet though something as unfocused, muddy and sluggish as the stream meandering downstage. As the characters note, with luck it’ll clear.