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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

Directed by Vicky Featherstone it’s Chloe Lamford’s set that broods in this meditation on a trio of near-orphaned siblings. It’s a haunting projection where Lee Curran’s lighting often silhouettes figures in foreground. Peter Rice’s sound is gothically present. Till March 3rd.


This Theatre Upstairs production lends a striking suspension of time to the middle of a sheep nowhere. Simon Longman’s Royal Court debut Gundog exudes the kind of stark belonging his plays seem made of. Though contemporary, its nowhere-ness renders it outside period and perhaps – as one character implicitly reminds us – country. Sheep farming like nothing happens everywhere.


Almost any time from the invention of shotguns would recognize it. Longman’s bleak dialogues, their scoured interiors, project a diminishing eternity. The perennial refrain ‘a year on’ which becomes a direction in a beat, underscores an impossible fingertips-scraped survival. It’s like watching tethered ghosts.


Directed by Vicky Featherstone it’s Chloe Lamford’s set that broods in this meditation on a trio of near-orphaned siblings where an itinerant nomad stares out the gun barrel aimed at him, a father haunts fields bereft of his wife and never returns, and a grandfather’s dementia pulls him ever farther out of reach.


A couple of slag-heaps anchor the bleak ground with sprays of earth eternally suspended against the L-shaped blueish backdrop. This shifts and scuds with clouds on occasion cupped in a yellow gloaming; never bright, often portending thunder. Indeed it’s predicted by the grandfather Mick (Alan Williams) that one more thunder storm will finish off the farmhouse. It breathes dereliction and obsolescence.


It’s a haunting projection where Lee Curran’s lighting often silhouettes figures in foreground. A mutton macquette dressed as sheep or sheepdog poses as dead or dying – more often finished off with a flash of dark and shotgun noise. Peter Rice’s sound is gothically present.


Skies as younger sister Becky (Ria Zmitrowicz) points out, are one of the things shepherds know intimately. When a clear sky presages rain. No good for any other job. Zmitrowicz’s first rapid-fire comic gauntlets to Alec Secareanu’s Guy right at the start presage a different rhythm, quick-fire witty catch-out set of questions at the end of a gun too, which Guy’s bamboozled by. At the end of it (and the gun) he’s got a job, and stays five years. ‘Don’t have to thank us for not murdering you.’ The opening scene is often very funny, but humour virtually never returns.


Zmitrowicz herself never gets the opportunity to fire off as it were again. Becky’s rhythms are if more lively, now subdued to the overall tenor of the piece. Nevertheless her through-line is a gnarled empathy, a shrewd assessment of others’ emotions including those of her family. She even tells Guy it’s all right to fancy Anna but don’t expect a response. The lack of any sexual tension or hint at anyone having a relationship is one of those elements where the elements have drained people. Survival is all that matters. The sheep and sometimes sheepdog inhabit that grizzled carcass in various positions, and it’s variously dispatched.


It’s elder sister Anna (Rocehnda Sandall) who holds the trio firmly together, together with satellite grandfather Mick who doesn’t realize the pub’s gone, and intermittently blinds them back with sense and frightening lucidity, particularly his closing speech. Eldest of all and treated as youngest, is the damaged Ben. Alex Austin is making a speciality of dangerous, damaged men and Ben’s unhinged by the mother’s death and father’s dereliction. Indeed it’s he who makes an unnerving discovery which hardly helps.


After a particularly unpleasant infection of sheep by an infected ram Ben’s let out (their shooting by Anna drastically affects the offstage father), he feels he must leave. He returns having failed to secure more than fruit-picking and that only because he pretended to be a foreigner. He turns his ire on Guy. There’s a climactic confrontation but however dangerous this gets Longman never allows gothic and sensational denouements to intrude: reality is bleak enough.


There’s a particularly tender moment when having taken the barrel of the shotgun into his mouth – Becky’s at the other end – Ben and Becky briefly revert in time to a happier life perhaps a decade ago. It’s moments like that that make you wonder what Longman will manage next.


Sandall’s Anna evokes a prematurely grizzled, almost Chekhovian coping against insuperable odds. She can’t even afford Becky’s luxury of empathy, wit and good-cop days. Secareanu well evokes that displaced probationary sense of a man who knows it can never become permanent. Not on speaking terms with his parents, possibly trained for some far more cerebral career, Guy’s simply grateful to be given board and lodging. It’s Becky who tells him what he must do. Becky too enjoys ne of the set pieces – Longman’s generous to his characters with these: ‘Land beneath our feet. Got all our blood inside it, hasn’t it?’ All that time. Belongs to us.’


Williams though ends with a contradiction: Mick’s paean to unstoppable seasons and how he’d stop them till his grandchildren gained the courage to know what to do for the best. It’s echoed word for word by Anna later and we end with that one predicted thunderstorm, rather ambivalently. With such faultless direction and acting, Longman’s reach is patent. What he does next will surely prove engrossing.