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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Directed over 95 minutes by Brendan O’Hea designed by Jessica Worrall – centred around each character emerging from various traps and Anan Josephs’ costumes and Jezz Wingman’s trapeze work. Paul Russell’s work on the ascending candles becomes part of the show. Sian Williams’ choreography is vital in the closing stages, coupled with Laura Moody’s score: she performs too with Fred Thomas. Sarah Case has ensured some vocals don’t destroy the singers. George Nichols assistant-directs both Edwards and ensures a ghost of continuity.



Blackout. The actor Tom Stuart lies prone in a slowly candled gloom on the Wanamaker stage. ‘Bugger’ he announces concussed and not with any idea who he is, even when Richard Bremmer’s Archbishop of Canterbury starts a Stoppard-esque conversation with him. ‘Where are we?’ ‘Here’ and with seemingly no memory lighting candles like someone from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he tells Edward – the name the actor later realises is his – he’s biking off to the pub.


But with an odd slip the Archbishop first tells him he’s not fit to be loved, then that he’s an abomination; in stagey Archbishop tones. And denies he’s said it. Edward dimly recognizes they’re both playing in Marlowe’s Edward II at the Wanamaker. And here he is, the lead again in shadows that terrify him, when all the exits are locked. Later there’s an ominous beating. Something’s trying to get in too.


Welcome to Stuart’s head, theatrically as Edward, in two concurrent plays; and Stuart as writer. This has to be the smartest debut from this venue since Jessica Swales’ Bluestockings: no wonder the playscripts sold out early.


It exudes Stuart’s theatrical sense, his use of the Wanamaker, sashaying in and out of tropes and jokes as slowly Annette Badland’s Gertrude Stein wanders in on a toilet, varying the same Steinesque phrase till you scream; Richard Cant’s Quentin Crisp descends on a swing feeling ‘perilous’ all his life, and Polly Frame’s Harvey Milk with a megaphone stops to extract some popcorn from a small trap door and proclaim Pride. The cast of Edward II are here then. All of them eventually. They’re all asking Edward why they’re there, and seem to know why he is.


Pacily directed over 95 minutes by Brendan O’Hea this afterpiece to Edward II is more than a meta-theatrical comment on it and what it’s been like to be gay over the last century in particular. Despite the jokes the beautifully mellifluous way Badland puts over Stein’s loss of her wife Toklas states a position. Self-sufficiency, neither apologizing nor advertising her queerness. It’s a touchingly dark-hued performance, centring us in a gravelly sanity.


Cant’s bird-like elegance as Crisp, vociferously denies gay rights and in a spirited defence of expression champions even enemies like Mrs T. Can’t vocality both saws and sings like a waspish Gielgud, as well as very Crisp. Well more of that later in Stuart’s memorable skewering via Crisp of Stuart’s stated position – close to Crisp’s real quips.


It’s too much for Milk, barrelling up the megaphone and scurrying round the perimeter to cajole people after Stonewall. Frame’s frantic assembly of rights might be lightly touched with self-parody. But that’s how you deal with the cost of seriousness.


After Edward is blessed with more than stage business and confetti in Jessica Worrall’s deft design – centred around each character emerging from various traps and Anan Josephs’ spectacular costumes, leathermen cowboys and yes Mrs T, and Jezz Wingman’s trapeze work for Crisp. Paul Russell’s work on the comically ascending candles and their ballet around and above the actors becomes part of the show: clearly Stuart relishes theatre business but can show restraint – sometimes.


Sian Williams’ choreography is vital in the closing stages, which are breathtaking, in Laura Moody’s whoosh of a score: this ranges from madrigalian vocal textures through the Petshop Boys grand a capella of ‘Liberation’ with The Fourth Choir via small ensembles of cello and double bass on stage. It’s a magical thing, touching uproarious and thrilling by turns. Moody performs too with Fred Thomas. Sarah Case has ensured some vocals don’t destroy the singers as we discover. George Nichols assistant-directs both Edwards and ensures a ghost of continuity: echoes of blockings, a faint cartography of Marlowe.


As the three companions to Edward edge him to himself, were treated to the ever-engaging spectacle of Sanchia McCormak’s treasurable fleeting appearances as Mrs Thatcher hand-bagging through a trap door or through another entrance, only for it to shut again as Edward no-platforms her a she tries to deliver her Clause 28 speech. Ultimately though, she gets to sing… ‘I am as I am’ in a guttural in-character mezzo that predictably doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house.


Crisp slyly admires her. Were engaged in experiential witness as well as opinion of what being gay means, and how society shames you or you attempt a way around it. Badland’s comedy and deadpan put-downs shroud a hurt especially when she discovers Toklas isn’t coming. Cant’s crisp shows the bird-boned Crisp is made of steel. Visible acceptance, no more is all you can aim for.


And visibility is what Katie West provides from the balcony as Dorothy Gale and Maria Von Trapp, like an apparition. There’s more of these as Bremmer reappears as Leatherman twinned with Colin Ryan’s Cowboy.


But it’s the appearance of Edward Alleyn who sends up Stuart’s method-acting introspection. Jonathan Livingstone’s Elizabethan actor who played Edward II is asked for his notes and ripostes he was given certain cues, and paid. Stuart engagingly puts himself down, though with Livingstone he creates a stunning text as Alleyn speaks in a contusion of cod syntax that falls apart in modern diction.


But it’s the appearance of Beru Tessema’s Gaveston aka Billy – yes he plays Gaveston in the concurrent Edward II – that forces Edward/Stuart to confront what it was that parted them. Shame, the killer curled in a boy growing up in the homophobic 1980s, the newspaper articles dropping all round with vile sentiments; and horribly up to date. Bahrain’s death penalty for being gay, and the Birmingham schools’ edict on sex education.


They force Edward to confront what shame him. Tessema’s gentle restraint here contrast with his performance as Gaveston, and Stuart who’s winningly bewildered and can hold the audience entranced, touches vulnerability – both personal and theatrically distanced.


The knocking all around grows as explosive as it was in Macbeth. And Seyi Andes-Belumi, a small boy stands there. His performance too is remarkable.


How we get from there to a chorus entering at each door ought to remain quiet, as it were, till this play transfers. With only eight performances it’s even briefer than last year’s new writing runs. And this was packed out. Perhaps that reflects the stamina required for a cast to run so many performance of Edward II together alongside it, but you might have hoped this could be extended till the end of the other’s run. Though the work’s designed snug for Wanamaker it could easily travel and the way the texts sold out suggests it has a life already beyond its debut. Most of all it heralds Tom Stuart as a dramatist to watch.