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FringeReview UK 2017

Low Down

Vivienne Franzmann’s anchors her social vision in finding an original language for each play. For instance in the memorable Pests Director Jude Christian shapes decisions over later narratives. Gabriella Slade’s rectangle set is inset by a sliding glass—panelled interior. One window’s circular like a cabin’s on which Meghna Gupta’s films are finally projected by Joshua Pharo’s video design and unblinking lit interior. Helen Skiera’s sound pinpoints ambient shifts. Till August 12th.


Vivienne Franzmann’s always anchored her social vision in finding an original language for each play whose obliquity is a refraction of the characters’ complicity. For instance in the memorable Pests where Franzmann studied what might be termed prison patois, a heady mix of jail-learned rap and childhood-shared vocabulary propels two sisters round revolving doors into shock discoveries and repeat behaviour. And as ever with Franzmann there’s slippery humour.


Director Jude Christian makes neat work and shapes decisions over how some later narratives might be conveyed. Gabriella Slade’s rectangle set of pristine pine with a baby cot and a wall Lakshmi paints yellow is inset by a sliding glass—panelled interior where either David or unexpected visitors land. One window’s circular like a cabin’s on which Meghna Gupta’s films are finally projected by Joshua Pharo’s video design and unblinking lit interior. There’s nowhere to cast shadows. Helen Skiera’s sound pinpoints ambient shifts at the right junctures.


In Bodies English is trammelled first by a final translation of a donor surrogate Lakshmi from India. She’s carrying a baby girl generated with sperm from British husband Josh and eggs from a Russian woman, paying an Indian clinic £22,000 for the privilege. Lakshmi’s real expression is miles from the bland formulae presented to the fathering/adopting British couple Josh and Chloe, a TV producer nominally alert for the moral maziness she unleashes.


The other language is vestigial, from Chloe’s father, David, suffering from motor neurone disease, whose limited capacity to speak erodes further. Neither it emerges are happy with what’s happening to and around them. Old Socialist David keeps finches, threatened by crows – an excellent rending performance by Philip Goldacre. Lakshmi – one of the oppressed he instinctively feels is being exploited – fears her surrogate baby is a crow, bringing bad omens.


We know quite a bit of this because the perfect daughter, sixteen is on hand from crisp-munching to accusation to translate for us. It at first appears we’re in two time zones, one moving forward nine months, the other sixteen years off, but it’s not quite that.


The vectors of fantasy and fantastic science collide as it’s swiftly borne in on us that Hannah Rae’s excellent querulous daughter is a projection, albeit one who increasingly acts as conscience and almost umbilical interlocutor to Justine Mitchell’s exasperated Clem – Mitchell travels along brittleness to hollowed-out warmth in a role where sympathies often ebb. Clem herself rapidly moves from the joshing as it were of her husband ‘I’ve got the bollocks of a baboon’ to such angst as ‘Not having a child makes me hate everyone who does’ which comes straight from Yerma.


Brian Ferguson’s supportive Josh picks up the fragments of maternity splintering around this, as its borne in on both of them by David’s carer Oni (Lorna Brown, increasingly commanding) that not only are emotional choices dubious, but they can’t ultimately be cast away either. Josh at least is a father-to-be. Brown’s interactions with Mitchell form the direct moral debate where Rae’s shade in informationally and emotionally along the same axes. Salam Hoque’s Lakshmi only discovers her voice through Rae late on, and it’s a devastating narrative and indictment.


Manjinder Verk’s voice-off Dr Sharma has swerved more than Lakshmi’s narrative and indeed her decisions. There’s an impending legal difficulty; the legislative world is catching up. Their questions impel travelling to another.


Franzmann’s intellectual clarity and tropes in this production are crystalline: just like the circular window as a womb showing the surrogate’s womb and embryo. The end with its jump cuts suggests this 90-minute play might have stretched more emotional distance, particularly with near-silent David, and the explosive release of what a child born might now occasion. But for clarity and suggestive obliquity – language as mis-communicator – it’s an exemplary play ranging beyond the scope of most surrogacy dramas into the dark heart of desires becoming nearly ruthless, and those on both side of the exploitative border of becoming human.