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Fringe Online 2021

Low Down

Directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson. Producer Jess Duxbury. Set Verity Johnson, Lighting Designer Zia Bergin-Holly and Sound Designer Annie May-Fletcher. Video team ShootMedia Executive Producer Elliott Cranmer, Producer Joshua Valanzuolo, Production Manager Nishita Ruparelia, DOP Harry Andrews, Camera Operator Adam Newland, Sound Recordist Jack Sandham. Till May 5th


A torch. One man – Alan Stafford (Benedict Salter) – discovers another, younger one: Josh (Joshua Oakes-Rogers). And in the tunnel Alan has some responsibility for; they’re full of bats. We’re naturally in the dark. Josh needs somewhere to sleep. And wants Batman to be nice to him… In fact Batman’s soon giving a lecture about bats. Welcome to Barry McStay’s Vespertilio.

Salter’s old-fashioned uptight bat star rubs up against the sassy, observant Josh, full of Harry Potter and Narnia references played by Oakes-Rogers in a slinky register, who observes the way Alan’s lips curls upwards. And has a dangerous Ortonesque way of playing on Alan’s vulnerable loneliness. We’re soon on an old Persian rug, a musty interior Alan once shared with his father. And they’re playing Marco Polo.  And ‘you suck like a pro. The best I’ve had in a while.’ Oddly it’s Alan who suggests it’s a one-night stand.

A thread of local news over the radio locates us somewhere near Chichester and the A27, as Josh tells his backstory. Homophobic Christianity rears up in the telling. The sifting of boundaries, explorations of intimacy, probing each other’s fears. There’s a reason the A27’s on the news. We hear Alan’s backstory too. It’s his house, 150 years in the family, that’s earmarked for demolition.

‘I suppose I’m a pizza person now.’ ‘Alan we are all pizza people…’ And there’s that initiation in Harry Potter.

Dialogue though runs deeper than these vivid displacements. ‘Why do you want to be with me?’ ’Because you’re the kind of guy who asks that question.’

There’s a moment when that recent favourite of dramatists, the billion heartbeats we all inherit (it’s said), develops a profound metaphor through a discussion of zoology. And it precedes a climax, a palindrome of what went before. ‘You’re the one who made me want to say it.’

Backstories have a way of dovetailing into a perfect storm. There’s another lecture … on the vampire bat. And we’re reversing to the cave. The darkness is illuminating. It’s a neatly dovetailed play, but with far more of an impact than neatness suggests. ’Everybody lies. That’s how we make people care.’ Nevertheless, there’s glints of hope at the end of a long torch in Vespertilio, which speaks to all of us.

Keenly directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson with breadth and pause making this seem more substantial than 65 minutes, set an oasis of Persian carpet and spartan living contrasting with torch-skewed dark by designer Verity Johnson, lit with those piercing contrasts by Zia Bergin-Holly and sound designed Annie May-Fletcher who manages an eerie envelope of bat flight contrasted with Chopin’s Nocturne Op 9/1, complementing the two worlds. Video team ShootMedia as ever render this a thing of permanent beauty.

To say this recalls the Peter Gill of The York Realist and Versailles is no exaggeration. Quality of dialogue, wit, inter-generational misunderstandings and learnings, reveals and damned lies; all this still anneals an aching intimacy. And a residual wisdom lives on, making you wonder what life, not McStay, might do with these characters.  Longlisted for the Bruntwood for his first play All These Maybes, and with awards since, Vespertilio marks McStay’s emergence as a writer of distinction. Anything he writes now should be looked out for.