Browse reviews

Fringe Online 2021

Low Down

Devised, directed and acted by Kenneth Jay for JST’s Footprints Festival. Designed by Louie Whitmore. Lighting by Johanna Town, Lighting Associate Tom Lightbody.

Nurse’s Song’ ‘The Sunflower’ ‘Laughing Song’ are composed and performed by Victor Vertunni, ‘To Morning’ by Nicki and Tanya Wells. ‘London’ is composed and sung by Tim Bruce as an instrumental version flitters throughout. ‘Holy Thursday’ is composed by Kenneth Jay and Jacqueline Pert. Piano’s by Tara Paulsson who takes other keyboard parts with Kenneth Jay.

Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till July 17th. Filmed and may be later available as stream.


Emerging from Hell or Piccadilly Underground, the revelations of London ‘the human awful wonder of God’  might be marginally more wondrous than ‘The Poison Tree’ and ‘London’ which Kenneth Jay as William Blake gives us in his letters and fillets of reminiscence as he steps back into his century via a tavern song. Jay portrays Blake somewhere towards the end of his life, still vigorous.

William Blake: Letters From Heaven and Hell asks a remarkably different understanding of Blake (1757-1827) oldest of the great romantics and for too long seen as an outrider.

Jay looks remarkably like the older Blake. He invests him with puckish amusement, scorn and sudden visionary gleams with a rapt raised tenor voice consorting with angels whom he almost as quickly ticks off for vanity. Jay can essay the tragic sense of Blake’s world slowly betrayed, or leap to an imaginary window to call down to children. There’s a baseline of joy, which is how contemporary memoirs recall Blake. He literally died singing, his wife Catherine reported. Yeats in his 1903 edition of Blake’s work tried to prove he was of Irish descent. Whilst not true, Jay does evince kinship with a peculiarly Irish gaiety. He performs reels. We might almost be in a genteel pub lock-in.

We’re not simply fed Blake’s earlier lyrics of course, even less the vast abandoned labyrinths of each of his systems; as on a relatively bare stage we’re treated to Jay in a black shirt, white Regency sailor’s-style trousers with white braces looking suitably period. There’s a leaf-drop desk, topped with papers, and on a chest of rather 1930s Deco cut, sunflower and gleaming brass gong, stage left a desk with a single drawer, a splendid chair, and another behind. Stage right, suspended in shadow, a bust of Blake himself. We’re at home. The uncredited sound design means we’re treated to anything song-like progressing past Blake’s window, even if it’s from another century.

And there’s several of these from ours as well as snatches from the 19th. The haunting ‘Nurse’s Song’, shafts of innocence and trails of glory in ‘The Sunflower’, the skirling ‘Laughing Song’ are all composed and performed by Victor Vertunni. ‘To Morning’ is a fine lyrical piece not too many light-years from Pentangle’s pure-toned vocals, by Nicki and Tanya Wells. ‘London’ is composed and sung by Tim Bruce as an instrumental version too flitters throughout; Jay gives this a wonderful saw-toothed rendition too. The luminescent ’Holy Thursday’ is composed by Jay and Jacqueline Pert. The piano’s played throughout by Tara Paulsson who takes other keyboard parts with Jay recorded on the sound system.

Lighting’s usually deep blue and lemon yellow in a spectral cusp of night and dawn.

The nightingale’s in fact one of those birds Blake celebrates. Those songs aerate through as occasionally Jay’s Blake dances. There’s even a roar from the id as ‘The Tyger’ starts up. But it’s more troubled elsewhere straight after, moving to Felpham in 1800-03 at the behest of his richer friend James Hayley. Blake was accosted by a soldier whom he threw out of his garden, who then accused him of sedition – knowing Blake’s politics. Hayley engaged a first-rate lawyer and got Blake off, but Blake was disenchanted with Hayley, Felpham and most of all himself for his naivety:

Then my verse I dishonour, my pictures despise

my person degrade and my temper chastise

and the pen is my terror, the pencil my shame

and my talent I bury and dead is my fame’


This (from ‘O why was I born with a different face’) from a man who had virtually none, though Wordsworth and Coleridge knew of him, and he inspired a following from a group of painters led by Samuel Palmer.

Jay’s moving to satire is an element of Blake we still see too little, despite trenchant comments on everything from reactionary government to Sir Joshua Reynolds. ‘A Last Judgement is necessary because fools flourish.’

But there’s a trip into caves, a descent and visionary Swedenborg adventure. And some amusing heterodox assaults on his favourite beings. ‘I always have the sense that angels have the vanity to see themselves as all wise…’

‘There’s no interval but I invite you to rest your eyes… on St James’s where I was baptised’ and Jay’s Blake sits down, covers himself with a white cloth and Jay’s voice from the sound design sings with string accompaniment his earliest lyric: ‘As sweet I wandered through every field’ written when he was fifteen.

We’re plunged more into the infernal latterly. Some lyrics supervene, his anti-Newton quip from ‘Auguries of Innocence’: ‘A truth that’s told with bad intent/beats all the lies you can invent’ with its admonition nearer the end: ‘Some are born to sweet delight/and some are born to endless night.’

Sometimes Jay’s voices wafts out from the sound design mimicking in Blake’s words unctuous idiots, sometimes poets. And once he puckishly asks ‘Katie what’s to be done next?’ The gong of course….

But it’s the vision of Albion detains Jay’s Blake most as he moves into his last visionary phase. It’s only here after that burst of street children singing, that we get ‘Jerusalem’ trenchantly delivered, in its original revolutionary spirit. Laughter, a holding aloft of that bust, and we’re dismissed affably, in Blakean good humour.

On the online version, there was a glitch meaning a few minutes of sound were lost, something later corrected but it’s a rich 80 minutes in any case. An ideal inhabiting of Blake.