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FringeReview UK 2016

Low Down

James Macdonald directs Lucy Kirkwood’s return to the Royal Court, and Miriam Beuther provides one of her frighteningly naturalistic sets – here a large cottage kitchen – with a habitual twist. this is where Max Pappenheim’s sound design comes into its own. Francesca Annis Deborah Findley and Ron Cook star in this Chernobyl-By-The-Sea three-hander.


Lucy Kirkwood, writer of Chimerica and other acclaimed works, returns to the Royal Court with this two-hour immersion into our own world cusped with disaster, Francesca Annis Deborah Findley and Ron Cook coping with a literal fallout nearer Chernobyl-By-The-Sea than Fukushima. James Macdonald directs, and Miriam Beuther provides one of her frighteningly naturalistic sets – here a large cottage kitchen – with a habitual twist where Max Pappenheim’s sound design comes into its own.


Rose (Annis) has a nosebleed as Hazel (Findlay) has just hit her mistaking her for an intruder to a near-deserted area where her husband Robin (Cook) has returned yet gain to feed their farm-deserted cows. Except as with tap water here, the farm’s contaminated by fatal irradiation. That nosebleed looks proleptic. Hazel explains why she and Robin retired nearby their workplace: ‘Retired people are like nuclear power stations. We like to live by the sea.’


The urbane, sculpted Rose an old colleague has worked in the US 40 years. Findlay’s nuclear expert-turned-earth-mother Hazel makes a graphic job of filling in the earthquake and boiling sea. Like a large duck’s egg (with a chocolate flake and raspberry ripple on it they imagine) the nuclear reactor they all once worked at as nuclear scientists lies with a literal skeleton crew, people slowly dying trying to control the contamination. Rose has a proposition.


On one level this devil’s bargain of a drama is how one generation takes responsibility for the ecological box of spiders it’s let out. And one strength lies in avoiding the obvious. For one thing the children are absent.


But the play more cleverly refracts parenthood and eschewing it, how easy it might be to make some gesture if you haven’t children of your own, and that’s where even more of this darkly funny – it really is funny – fable unfolds. The way Annis draws out Rose’s attempts to get a rocket scientist lover to say ‘it’s not rocket science’ and the pay-off is just one highlight in her gradual shift to seraphic grand inquisitor of conscience, not entirely unlike Albee’s The Lady From Dubuque.


Rose, most worldly of these rational physicists in fact underscores otherworldliness: she hears sunken church bells. An important town collapsed into the sea when as Hazel characteristically puts it ‘the cliff crumbled off like a piece of wet cake.’ Rose, curiously insistent, soon adds of all scientists ‘physicists are the most likely to believe in God.’


Findlay’s way with Hazel is contrastingly thinly-veiled resentment, vulnerable life-affirmation, someone prepared to fight, literally, to protect her own.


Their sparring sparks more comedy. Rose speculates the couple’s troubled eldest daughter who loved beards young now has a bearded partner? – ‘she’s clean-shaven’ interrupts Hazel. So is Hazel pulling out chin hairs with a feeling of triumph. Hazel fights age ready for ‘a new and exiting chapter’. Rose and eventually Robin take slant views.


As Hazel Findlay’s resentment of Rose really does add up to a punch on the nose, only that doesn’t quite happen the right way, after a sequence where we realize the unassuming almost rustic Robin, and Rose who was assumed dead, understand each other better than forty years’ absence suggests. In their youth Robin courted both, but Hazel does nothing by accident Rose tells Robin when alone, and the eldest now angry off-stage child suggests the circumstances in which children are conceived; it transmits its own trauma, and anchoring. Though as Robin adds ‘you have a duty to that child, to fuck off at some point.’


Although there’s a dance later, the sashay around characters themselves scrape points along rediscovery, and literally old wounds. Rose’s American-ness is joshed by the couple as a way of Robin reintroducing intimacies excluding Hazel when she’s out, who’s herself spooked by Rose’s knowledge of where the glasses are, as she tells Robin. Findlay’s watchfulness and terrifyingly timed balance (Robin’s Viagra can be sequenced with the washing) masks her perpetual fear of the shadow-Rose forty years in her imagination. Each envies the other’s mode.


Robin too joins Hazel in continually probing the more in-the-world Rose declaring they’re not tweeters and though Rose isn’t either, Annis grandly pronouncing ‘I do not tweet’, the fault-lines of Robin’s loyalty shift; both women notice. It’s to Hazel’s discomfiture when Robin stays behind with Rose after the central crisis Rose wishes on them both.


If the brief togetherness of the dance Hazel devised long ago around ‘It Ain’t Funky Now’ comes after Hazel’s first explosion, it’s followed by another when it’s clear Rose was lying about the way she used the toilet, and its mopping-up operation both comic and horribly to the point. The consequences of Hazel’s rage, the others’ provocative reaction and another haymaker leads to a reveal for her, though the audience has seen Rose tenderly checking Robin over.


It’s a beautifully structured moment emotionally releasing the big conversation. To Hazel’s yoga-affirming youthfulness Robin too counters ‘it’s just rented meat… We used to wrestle the atom all night on a crisp sandwich.’


Its clear Robin who’s had other opportunities with women as he tells Rose, and who’s sanguine with life and death, has deceived Hazel in one tender instance: the cows. He’s going back repeatedly for a reason. Kirkwood never lets her characters manifest as dialectical avatars, they’re as unpredictable, as human, as free-floating electrons. Each envies the other’s choices as Rose admits to Hazel: ‘You were who I wanted to be when I grew up.’ The play’s tipping moment also concertinas forty years of see-saw: each lacking that person’s scope and art, come to a terrible balance.


As decisions settle, and this is shifting as this drama ends, the women take up yoga positions as Robin slops out, and suddenly the incredibly-received fable of medieval submerged bells returns in full chime, over an immersive effect fathoms deep. This isn’t simply a masterly eco-play, though it’s consummately that and more. In positing cycles of existence, it listens out for other millenias’ collapses into the sea.


Rose, attuned to reckoning, is delicately surcharged with a moral identity. Here, making one redemptive decision alerts her to a communion with living patterns. This is blink-and-miss hinted and you can ignore it, though its inward ambition is as huge as Chimerica’s extrinsic tableaux. As to what this dramatist may do next, her writing ‘a play about a comet, knee-deep in elliptical orbits’ pulses with some equally peregrine imagining. For now, Kirkwood’s masterly play resonates with macrocosmic power, towering over the minutiae of living.