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Fringe Online 2020

Low Down

Directed by Edward Hall, designed by Michael Pavelka and lit by Matt Haskins. Sound’s by Paul Grothius and the composer Simon Slater. It was filmed in its October-November 2018 run for streaming over 72 hours, by an unnamed in-house Hampstead team directed by Hall. Screened again March 23-29th, it may well return.


Hampstead Theatre have beaten even the National to it streaming four plays over the next few weeks. It’s poignant to see Lauren Gunderson’s I and You directed in Hampstead’s 2018 production by Edward Hall.

Still only 38, Gunderson’s the most produced playwright in the U.S. after Shakespeare. Seeing this play, you can see why. Couched in the same hyper-naturalist mode that permeates American theatre currently, it plays with this in a way I’ve not seen.

The title’s a Walt Whitman quote, and Caroline’s about to learn far more about him than she’d normally want. Caroline’s life more like Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shallot’ is looking at mirrors, in her case an iPhone. She can’t leave her purple and violet room with her liver condition, even seems resigned to dying early. All she has is a huge skylight above her purple and violet bedroom.

If she’s half sick of shadows Maisie Williams’ (from Game of Thrones) is furious when Zach Wyatt’s Anthony bursts in with another Whitman gem: ‘Here I stand’ which understandably causes Caroline’s explosive defence mechanism to ramp up fury but with a dial-down facility too: ‘Did my mother set this up? She would totally do this – make something up just to make me feel involved. I have a life, ok: I text. A lot.’ Williams knows how to come down. It’s crucial here.

So this afternoon, Anthony’s here to collaborate on a school project on Whitman, with his well-thumbed copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, an urgent assignment from their English teacher. No-one’s warned Caroline and she spends the first ten minutes trying to shoo him out when abruptly even Anthony thinks it’s time to call it a day.

The trouble with this energy is there’s not very far to go when you’re shouting right at the start. Happily in her debut as that speech indicates, Williams knows how to dial down and – importantly – vary the pace. Wyatt’s gawky but acute, nice-guy sportiness can run a repertoire of shadings too. Mostly though it’s Gunderson’s way of keeping this restless circling of each other as Caroline reluctantly agrees to fall in with Anthony’s plans and then fall a bit further.

As both let down their guards and shyly share secrets, this seemingly de-dum poetry project maps something extraordinary, and it’s not quite what you expect. With any teenagers music playlists have to feature too, and it’s surprisingly traditional: Caroline’s bed-dance of Great Balls of Fire (Williams nailing and poignant) cedes though to Anthony’s in-depth praise John Coltrane and his ‘A Love Supreme’. Wyatt conveys a raptness that testily melts Caroline too. Even here Gunderson is laying down tropes where only at the at the end you mull over each detail, where it leads.

Designed by Michael Pavelka with a sweep of purple, violet and orange splashes the one set’s dominated by a lowering skylight where darkness threatens to fall early. There’s a remarkable gamut of items from a plastic tortoise to record player and a comfort zone of Caroline’s room that’s like a teenager’s room turned on max. It’s lit by Matt Haskins with sudden drops as the play’s punctuated with two moments of darkness. Sound’s by Paul Grothius – vital for the music scenes and one tonal difference late on. Composer Simon Slater lightly positions music around the nodal points of Jerry lee Lewis and John Coltrane.

It’s true many of the greatest plays release their themes in an inexorable tread, and don’t like an O Henry or Roald Dahl story release their – in this case – wrenching truth at the end. But this is a finer twist than such stories, even Dahl’s. It’s wholly original, you realize how it all fits, will leave you in a heap and wonder what else Gunderson has written that comes near this.